For many an indie rock band, tapping into a palpable intensity without fully giving oneself to punk rock or something less listener-friendly can be a tricky task. Similarly, creating an aesthetic density or ethereality without going shoegaze sometimes also proves challenging. And that goes double for a duo. While Baltimore’s Wye Oak has, from time to time, been labeled as “shoegazer,” the music they make is far less dependent upon an overbearing sonic aesthetic. It’s subtler, but carries a hefty emotional weight. It’s powerful, but never overwhelming. And where other duos such as Mates of State or The White Stripes make up for their limitations by kicking up as massive a racket as they can, Wye Oak focuses instead on pursuing a rich and textured sound, seemingly dismissing the idea that they have any limitations at all.
From the opening shimmer of “Two Small Deaths,” the ballad that opens Civilians, the band’s third and best album, Wye Oak slowly but beautifully immerse the listener in a glowing wash of guitars, keyboards and spare cymbal taps. It’s a simple but gripping opening to an album that only grows bigger and more expansive from there, and, most impressively, with essentially the same elements that make up that haunting, subdued introduction. What follows, dreamy highlight “The Alter,” is one of the few moments when Wye Oak actually do approach shoegazer territory, yet they do so without the massive effects so often associated with the genre. Rather it creates the illusion of density, Jenn Wasner ‘s guitars and Andy Stack’s guitars layering into a wall of blissful haze.
One of the strongest elements on Civilians is Wasner’s voice, which is neither showy, nor precious, but raspy and soulful. Her ragged pipes evoke a melancholy weariness on the jaw-dropping title track as she laments, “I am nothing without pretend/ I know my faults/ can’t live without them,” before the tempo intensifies and a dose of delay echoes her heartbreaking but all-too-familiar verse, “I don’t need another friend/ when most of them/ I can barely keep up with them.” And on “Holy Holy,” a harder rocking gem and a not-so-delicate exercise in tension and restraint, Wasner transforms the title phrase into “hold me, hold me,” before later declaring “all human joy is precious/ and I for one should know this” and ultimately unleashing that joy and passion in the form of higher pitched cries in the song’s cathartic and explosive final minute. She’s not just an entertaining singer, but one with a sympathetic and human voice; she’s the kind of frontwoman that you feel you can trust.
A commanding and emotionally gripping singer requires a solid backing, however, and Stack more than holds up his end of the bargain. In a live setting, he performs the complicated feat of playing drums and keyboards simultaneously, which seems extra tricky when you consider the kind of rhythmic heft he provides on Civilian. He kicks off “Holy Holy” with the kind of massive crashes and stomps that suggest dynamic ascension later on, but of course the band keeps the listener on edge for more than two minutes before that final, satisfying detonation finally happens. His tom-tom beats and rich organ on “Hot as Day” heighten the intensity on what might have otherwise been a more low-key piece, save for its dramatic, ascendant coda, of course. And Stack and Wasner make a seamless transition from quasi-danceable indie pop to murky, Crazy Horse-style crawl on “Dogs Eyes,” revealing themselves equally adept at both wiry indie exercises and meaty, classic rock anthems alike.
A work of sadness and joy, painted in vivid, natural hues, Wye Oak’s Civilian is the breathtaking result of what happens when a band doesn’t merely aim to create a good indie rock record, but rather a great rock record. The beauty in Wye Oak’s music is all the more affecting because it feels real, uninhibited by excess or affectation. That it rocks hard in all the right places merely stirs up that complex mix of emotions even further, leaving a musical journey that the listener will be more than pleased to embark upon repeatedly.
Stream: Wye Oak – “Civilian”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.