Don Ignacio's Music Reviews (Capsule)
List of "W" Artists
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If Children (2007) ★ ★ ★
A modest debut from a modest band. It was self-released at first, but they were quickly absorbed by Merge Records. The music heard doesn't betray who this band was: a male-female duo in their early 20s recording at a university. There's an understated, naïve quality to this, like they didn't have ambitions but to create an album that they themselves wanted to hear. The music itself is low-key, moody, melancholic. It's difficult to classify, existing somewhere between folk and shoegazing. Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner, alternate not-quite-mumbling lead vocals singing melodies that would make sense coming from a lone acoustic guitar wielding busker, but most tracks are decorated with distorted guitar washes and feedback. Occasionally there is a keyboard or violin that adds to the murky sounds. The lyrics are abstract and poetic, occasionally giving me things to contemplate. I wouldn't classify any particular track here as wholly exciting, but I am at least excited these guys already had a firm grasp on songwriting itself--melodies that grab the ear and a push that drives the song forward. Although I do notice some awkward transitions between tracks, I nonetheless appreciate good variety between songs. "Family Glue" might be the song to hear first, but other listeners could pick up anything else as a highlight.
The Knot (2009) ★ ★ ★ ★
A lot like their last album except more self-assured. The sound is cleaner, the songs more fully realized. Clearly Wye Oak were one of those bands that eased into the craft. I'd even say the album fits squarely into a particular genre: shoegazing. I'm being reminded of Mojave 3. Droll, passionate, dark. It's also suffocating but only if suffocating is a beautiful experience. The melancholic melodies are interesting enough for my ears to latch onto as the dense textures develop and evolve around them. Lead vocals are this time almost always taken by Jenn Wasner who somehow comes off simultaneously as a weakling but is sharp enough to pierce through the haze. The one thing the previous album had going for it compared to this was more variety. These songs tend to blur together. But I wouldn't dwell on that. This is a solid album. (Like an oak?) It's sometimes sparse, sometimes tense, sometimes thrilling, usually slow. Sometimes I get hints of country or folk, which I might only be saying because they like to throw violins in the mix sometimes. "Siamese" is almost joyous, but maybe it's just relative to the rest of the album. That might be my favorite song, but ask me again tomorrow and I'll pick something else. "Mary Is Mary" is a great example of something that theoretically should bore me to tears, but it just doesn't. Seven minutes long with Wasner repeating just a lines of melody. But that melody is nonetheless distinct enough to catch my ear, which glues together that hypnotic background that ebbs and flows ringing of electric guitars and lonely drumming. I mean I don't want to get carried away about it, but I find the experience quite beautiful.
Civilian (2011) ★ ★ ★ ★
Their third album is less categorically shoegazing, but the dense, melancholic flavors are still there. The songs come across more sharply textured and distinctive--rich in melancholy and sometimes even breathtaking. The melodies are marvelous all around. Jenn Wasner is at her peak vocal prowess--her high-pitched, ethereal coo frequently going airborne. My favorite track is "The Alter," characterized by bouncy organ jabs and a dwindling, almost mechanical drum rhythm that helps generate wobbly, evolving textures that are nonetheless kept tidy through an enchanting chord-progression and a beautiful melody. That's the kind of song I can daydream to. Throughout the album, Wye Oak expand their sound into a variety of styles. The most unusual perhaps is "Dog Eyes," an artsy pop song with new wave flavors that echo Bowie's The Lodger. Other hugely enjoyable songs are "Holy Holy," almost grungy with harshly but bouncing strummed guitar, and "Civilian," which is thick like caramel with heavy, ringing guitars but a tambourine and bass rhythm making it something I can step to. A few tracks are perhaps too understated for my tastes, particularly a despondent pair in the middle with "Fish," a repetitive kind of dirge, and "Plains." But "Plains" still excites midway through with a big flare-up, and I still find its chord-progression intriguing. The last song to mention is "Hot as Day," which has a beautiful melody that I could picture Burt Bacharach turning into something distinctly his, but here it's jumbled with their shoegazing sensibilities that somehow creates an atmosphere that gives me wide eyes.
Shriek (2014) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Wye Oak's albums this far had been admirable and frequently quite wonderful. But this is the first time they've taken a piece of my heart. Maybe it's not much surprise it'd be this album to do that, given my incurable addiction to synth-pop. In particular artsy synth-pop. Despite the instrumental shake-up, their music continues to have their own unique flavors of melancholy and there's still the distinctive high-pitched, vaporous singing of Jenn Wesner. Only the instrumental textures are crisper and even more ear-grabbing. Further, I'd say their typically meandering melodies have gotten better. One song, "Glory," might be their only single ever that seems like it belongs on the radio. It is characterized by a catchy rhythmic bass and keyboard groove and reverb heavy vocals that seems like it comes from the clouds. Other songs aren't far away from that one, even if they are more disjointed. "Before" makes a fitful opening track, as it starts with a lone, slowly oscillating synthesizer that would seem to foreshadow their synth-pop shift. But it isn't long before it dramatically picks up with grand textures of the kind that make me space out and reflect on bigger things. "Tower" could be the most unusual. More of an ideas song than a spiritual one. It has complex, rickety rhythms that keep evolving and never ceasing to engage my brain. What prevents me from giving this album the full five stars is just that it doesn't strike me as a major, definitive work of art like--well--one of this album's ancestor's, Talking Heads' Remain in Light. There are also a couple tracks in the second half that come off a bit muddled. Nonetheless, this is a strong accomplishment and certainly among the shimmering beacons of the '10s indie music scene.
Tween (2016) ★ ★ ★ ★
What sets this apart from their previous albums is the melodies don't hook onto me that well, and Jenn Wasner's vocals are behind such a heavy wall of watery guitar and synthesizers that I hardly understand the lyrics at all. In other words, this is album is practically peak Cocteau Twins. It took me a few listens for this album really to gel with me, but I was finally able to get myself immersed into its heavy, hypnotic atmospheres. Close my eyes to it and just let my mind explore. The glorious introduction, "Out of Nowhere," is a long fade-in of complex sound, starting quietly with synth fireflies dizzying around. Soon enough a giant, wall of sound fades in, which sounds like it's filling a majestic cathedral. My only complaint about the opener is it ends way too quickly. The following track "If You Should See" is a fitful follow-up, but wouldn't it have been nice if they found a way to blend together the two tracks? I suppose that's my main complaint about the album: They didn't really seem to have their finger on its pulse. Case-in-point, "No Dreaming" has a really fantastic couple of drunken flare-ups, but it seems to me that it lingers too long in a dazed, rather dull state before it gets to that. But "Too Right" is quite thoroughly dark, heavy, and downright scary. The main part of it has a downright dark riff that might have been made to a decent black metal song. That is, if they didn't have to insist being shoegazing devotees. While this album doesn't quite grab me like Shriek did, I found it easy to dream to. And you certainly can't fault Wye Oak for releasing albums that sound too much like one another.
The Louder I Come, the Faster it Runs (2018) ★ ★ ★ ½
Once again, Wye Oak create a record that's unmistakably theirs while continuing to explore sounds and textures not quite like they've done before. This seems like the spiritual successor to Shriek, though, with an emphasis on crisp synth textures and rhythms. What's different is it doesn't have the minimalist tendencies. Despite the non-minimalism, I'd say this is their most organized sounding record--nothing about it seems messy, murky or accidental. It's all quite polished and mature. Which wouldn't be a bad thing if only the vocal melodies were as interesting as they were on Shriek. This album consists merely of fine ones. I also miss the spontaneity of their songs. Their previous albums had been brimming with surprises and development. Here, the songs tend to find a texture and stick to it. Now, I do enjoy this record, regardless of what I might say. I'm focused on the negatives only because this is my least favorite record since their debut. The nicest song is probably "It Was Not Natural," which features a normal piano that plays long chords with analog style drum machines that putter away in the background. In the foreground we hear a drunk sounding saw synth playing single notes. The melody and chord progression keep things interesting, even if they're not relying on tonal or emotional shifts to do that job. "The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs" opens with an extended fade-in reminiscent of a Tangerine Dream soundtrack from the '80s. Then the vocals come in with a neat endless-overdub effect. It's a respectable song, for sure. "Symmetry" is also one of highlights, with its darker atmosphere and an interesting effect that seems to merge the vocals together with whirling synthesizers. Overall, I do enjoy this record, and I find it interesting to witness this band mature--when their technical know-how crests and the crass inventiveness gets squeezed out.
All reviews are written by Michael Lawrence.