Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Wye Oak abandon guitars on "Shriek," but maintain their greatness

When Wye Oak first announced that their latest album, Shriek, wasn't going to feature any guitar, it seemed like a huge mistake.  Their previous three albums weren't defined by lead singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner's six-string prowess, but it was a large part of the appeal.  She doesn't just peddle in riffs -- her guitar work can drone on, provide texture, and yes, deliver a good riff if needed.  Indie rock is already increasingly becoming a genre that lacks bite, and the synth-heavy prospect of this record looked to be a significant blow, given Wasner's status as one of the best guitarists around.

It's true that nothing on Shriek serves the same function that the band's versatile guitar sounds did, but the change in sound has proven to be a lateral move instead of a step down.  The record has a great sense of space that allows the songs more room to breathe -- think "We Were Wealth" on Civilian, but stretched out to an entire album.  There's always been an air of mystery to Wye Oak's songs, but the guitars were a centering force.  Without them, the songs are even more wispy, floating about like some small wonder.  They're slippery tunes that keep your attention by always wriggling out of grasp.  Synths were used merely as a textural element on the band's previous albums, but they've stepped up to fill the vacuum here.  They carry the songs on this record, which often take a more pop leaning in the vein of Wasner's solo efforts in Dungeonesse and Flock of Dimes.  "Glory," one of the faster paced songs, is centered around a catchy 80s hook, and the synthesizers even veer into chiptune territory in places.  And while they may not be the inventive, droney sounds of her guitar work, Wasner's debut as a bassist isn't too shabby either.  Her deep, knobby basslines add a new flavor to the songs that compliment the buoyant synths well.

The element in the band's formidable arsenal that gets the most time to shine is Wasner's voice.  Because people always praise her skills as a guitarist, they tend to elide over her voice, which has always been crystalline.  Before, it  cut through the atmospheric haze of the band's dronier sound, but now it lies right at the center of songs.  Her strengths as a vocalist really show on album highlight "Sick Talk," a swirling, dreamy song in the middle of Shriek.  The way her voice just swims around in those watery keyboards is a thing of beauty.  Despite that, the lyrics still manage to be as mush-mouthed as ever, but it's hard to care when their vehicle of delivery is so mesmerizing.

For getting so much pre-release buzz for its sonic changes, the record is more experimental from a structural standpoint.  Shriek is an album full of curveballs; it always keeps you on your feet.  There's something exhilarating and high stakes about the way that these 10 tracks twist and turn, giving little indication of what lies around the corner.  Just look at the way the high-stepping verses of "Despicable Animal" and the primal ones in "Paradise" dissolve into gorgeous, subdued choruses.  "I Know the Law" feels like it's about to spread wide open at any second, but the most it does is deliver a layered vocal bridge.  All of this makes the album seem academic, but it's actually quite relaxed and catchy.

Really, the band has never been afraid to change things up.  Go back and look at their discography and you'll see that even though there's a distinct Wye Oak stamp between albums, none of them sound the same.  If Children resembled the quiet indie rock that was standard at the time, The Knot ventures into post-rock territory, and Civilian alternates between dreamy and jagged.  In that light, Shriek is less a stylistic overhaul than it is a normal step along the path.  It'd be nice to hear prominent guitar and synth on the next record, but Wye Oak isn't about taking requests.  They give us what we need, not what we want.

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