Named after the landmark 460-year-old tree in the group’s native Maryland that was tragically destroyed by a hurricane in 2002, Wye Oak, composed of the Baltimore couple Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, may not entirely live up to the stateliness of their namesake with their debut If Children, but nevertheless present a densely woven opening statement which could easily flourish into full bloom somewhere down the line. Displaying a generational depth to its supple blend of backbone acoustic that relishes in occasional noise freak-outs, and lush textures that lift it above its coffeehouse roots, much of the album still bears the marks of a palpable Yo La Tengo influence. That’s particularly apparent in Wasner’s rampant, feedback-driven guitar interludes that swarm to an abrupt climax on opener “Please Concrete,” as she lithely coos over a plucked acoustic.
Even so, If Children hardly comes off as a mere by-product of taste. As the first track comes to a hasty mid-note finish, a wobbly reverb cues up “Warning” in a buoyant splash of pure-bred indie rock – a bit rehashed, yes, but nonetheless refreshing for its straight-faced lack of irony. Stack then enters with “Regret” to mellow the mood with his Elliott Smith-tinged vocals, slightly hazy and full of dire metaphors (“The years of decay will make a mess of me/ These rotted floor boards arch below my feet”), just before breaking the dour mood with a lazy harmonica over a wordless chorus and sprinkled ivory keys.
These opening tracks lay the foundation for much of Wye Oak’s twists and turns, such as the underbelly of distortion that holds up “Archaic Smile” or the heavy-hearted lyrics of “Family Glue,” accented by a growling cello, but somehow the bag of tricks never burns itself out as the songs themselves, apart from the swirling guitars and despondent vocals, are surprisingly sturdy. And like Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s vocal interplay, Wye Oak exchange mic time throughout the track list, which keeps even the down times light and airy as they progress, neither dominating the open spaces or outstaying their welcome through its eleven tracks. If Children may be the sound of a band not completely comfortable in their own skin and reaching just beyond the scope of their abilities, but not so far that their ambitions fall flat in the process. At times, they fall dead on target, such as with the brisk and beautiful “Keeping Company,” easily the album’s best song, which reminds somewhat of the “twilight” bookend to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness for its bustling piano arpeggio brightened with cymbal rushes and kept afloat by Wasner’s breezy alto.
Unlike so many romantically entwined duos looking to make beautiful music together, Wye Oak don’t fall prey to the siren song of bittersweet love songs, but deal instead with the universal frustrations of familial life on the semi-title track “If Children Were Wishes” (“Oh, aren’t you afraid of living in a major American city? So marry a stupid, unreachable girl who’s impossibly pretty“), or loss of their youthful charisma in “I Don’t Feel Young.” Still, that latter track feels quick-footed even as it’s shoegazing, which may very well be If Children‘s strength: Wye Oak have all the traits of a duo without having to sound like one.