Wye Oak – Civilian (2011): On Second Thought

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Baltimore-based Wye Oak took their name from a majestic 460-year-old tree that was finally felled by a lightning in 2002. Playing off their namesake, drummer Andy Stack and guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner make music that is sturdy and resilient, but surprisingly vulnerable. In many ways, the indie duo were a throwback to 1995, when detuned guitars ruled the College Radio airwaves and Dinosaur Jr. walked the earth.

Civilian, these days, could be considered meat and potatoes indie rock. But like the best indie rock, Wye Oak is way too weird for that description to stick. Songs are built on noise guitars that throb like prime Yo La Tengo or Goo-era Sonic Youth, building imperceptibly to surprising peaks.

So while we get the expected brooding passages punctured by ear bleeding, oddly beautiful guitar solos, Wye Oak’s sonic palette also includes a few surprises. Limpid keyboards and subtle electronics infuse the dream pop opening cut “Two Small Deaths.” Folky guitar strumming gives way to pulsing bass and squelchy crackling synths on “The Alter.” And on “Plains,” dusty guitars and ghostly piano recall the arid atmospherics of ’90s sagebrush rockers Scenic.

Throughout, Wye Oak’s not so secret weapon is Wasner’s powerful and emotional vocals. On Civilian’s title cut, her warm contralto builds to a soaring multitracked chorus that is gorgeously, achingly sad. It doesn’t hurt that she throws in a paint-peeling guitar solo for good measure.

With Civilian, Wye Oak made music that existed outside of trends and fashion. Out of curiosity, I Googled the destroyed tree that is their namesake. In the blasted remains of the trunk, there was a sapling growing. If Wye Oak’s plan was for longevity and renewal, I’d say they chose their name well.

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Patrick Moran

Patrick Moran

Chicago native Pat Moran is a filmmaker who has produced and written five feature films, and served as producer and editor for Western Classics, a film series hosted by actor James Best. He also writes about music for Creative Loafing Charlotte. The best job title he ever had was "part-time vampire." Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Patrick Moran
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