Wye Oak : Civilian

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Wye Oak used to live deep in the noise, their fleeting flourishes of sublime beauty hidden between walls of thunderous guitar and crushing distortion. Guitarist and singer Jenn Wasner once said, “I like bands that you have to look a bit to find it, where you have to really listen.”  And Wye Oak themselves used to be that kind of band, existing in the well-worn nether-region that exists in the middle of the loud/soft dynamic.  

They crafted their first two albums out of this foundation, carving simple, almost delicate moments of restrained elegance, that were carried aloft by Wasner’s ethereal, dream-like voice. The sound was capped by her steadily improving, inventive guitar work, along with the propulsive drumming of partner Andy Stack. They placed these simple pockets of sound in between what Wasner called, “sonic explosions that come out of nowhere.”

But on their third album, Civilian – by far their greatest triumph yet – Wye Oak has emerged from the noise.They can still ramp it up and bring those explosions, as they do on “Holy, Holy,” but now those fleeting moments of beauty have taken over the duo’s songs and the results are stunning.The album careens from the slow burn of “We Were Wealth,” “Fish,” and album opener, “Two Small Deaths,” to the violent detonation of the title track.

It is on the title track where Wye Oak reveals their new secret weapon, Wasner’s guitar.On previous albums, her playing was buried beneath a dense wall of sound, at times overshadowed by Stack’s unique and busy combination of drum and keyboard work.But Wasner’s playing has become a swirl of shimmering, unimaginable patterns and progressions.  At its core remains her sweet strums and finger picking that was deployed so deftly on their previous two albums, but as she has gained confidence and experience, her playing has grown immensely, adding new-found depth and emotion to Wye Oak’s already passionate invocation.

Wasner’s growth, along with Stack’s always steady hand, has guided the development of Wye Oak’s sound into a rich, elegant attack  that eclipses their stellar work of the past. Civilian will be in any conversation about the Best Albums of the 2011.

Civilian is out now on Merge Records.

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