Wye Oak – Civilian

written by: March 14, 2011
Release Date: March 8, 2011


Listeners should be prepared to go slack-jawed upon learning this record was recorded by two people, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, since it sounds like at least a four to five piece, if not a whole flippin’ orchestra.

On their third record for North Carolina’s Merge label, Civilian, post-Radiohead indie blues duo Wye Oak offer ten slices of melodic and interwoven math-pop that varies between balls-to-the-wall rock and subtle moody post-Pinback underpinnings.

This is atmospheric folk-rock for those who cut their indie rock teeth in the ’90s, and their compositions grow slowly via crescendos or come out of the gate like a Mack truck.

This is not music composed and recorded in a vacuum; there’s no question these two hounds are hot on the trail of Fleet Foxes and have some radio in their heads, but the way they synthesize these varied influences is compelling and enjoyable. Listening to Civilian is like revisiting the delicate fragility and emotionally bare folk musicians going back to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young but with some minor Rolling Stones chords threatening in the distance, or it could be the balladry of Beck or Joan Baez.

According to lyricist/vocalist/guitarist Wasner, the songs “are, as a whole, about aloneness (the positive kind), loneliness (the horrible kind), moving on, and letting go (of people, places and things),” and that’s definitely the sense one gets when listening to this release. Indeed, her lovely but somber alto adorns the grinding and at times chaotic instrumentation in a layer of bittersweet honey.

The minor guitar interlacing of “Dogs’ Eyes” produces something so sublime it sounds like Patti Smith singing with Merge labelmates Polvo, and just when one thinks enough layers of intricacy have been introduced, they bring in piano accents and then some ponderous riffage a la Black Sabbath.

“Plains” begins by recalling the angular vamps of Helium, but the vocals are a tad more soothing and gently flowing akin to Nebraskans Azure Ray. Again, it builds up into a Sonic Youth-like frenzy with subtle oohs. After the post-rock wrenching conclusion of “The Alter,” “Holy Holy” continues the sonic pschizophrenia by leaning on the tremolo bar like My Bloody Valentine, but Wasner’s vocals sound more like Carol van Dyk from Bettie Serveert than the My Bloody Valentines’ Bilinda Butcher.

Drummer/keyboardist Stack plays some welcome tambourine accents, rollicking, marching drums and simmering organ parts on the ambitious title track, and delivers some wonderful syncopation and pulsing keys to propel the soaring “Hot As Day” to new heights (there’s even some of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” echoed at the end.

While there’s not a bad song here, “We Were Wealth” is also a highlight; although it bubbles under subtly for almost three minutes, its build-up and shimmering sonic denouement are truly a pivotal point.

In addition to the other antecedents, there’s also similarities to fellow Baltimore duo Beach House, but Wye Oak tend to use the dream pop milieu as an accent and a reference, as opposed to producing gauzy layers, which envelop and echo every part. Ironically the concluding track, “Doubt” has the most similar approach vocally to Beach House’s Victoria Legrand, but is musically dissimilar in every other respect. It’s a barebones acoustic closer and provides the most nakedly emotional moment on Civilian.

The final cut is successful because it leaves the listener wanting more, and the same can be said for the album as a whole. When the largest quibble with a record is that it’s over so soon, one can’t help but believe Wye Oak have succeeded in creating a classic collection of post-modern folk rock with Civilian.

Wye Oak – Civilian tracklist:

  1. “Two Small Deaths”
  2. “The Alter”
  3. “Holy Holy”
  4. “Dogs Eyes”
  5. “Civilian”
  6. “Fish”
  7. “Plains”
  8. “Hot as Day”
  9. “We Were Wealth”
  10. “Doubt”