Sneaky great single from this increasingly impressive Baltimore duo—an elusive mix of alterna-folk and noise pop, using timelessness to unleash volume on a fulcrum of suspense. Or something like that.
“Civilian” has a simple structure: there are four two-line verses, with a repeating instrumental break between them. There is no chorus, even as the song directly implies one. Within this simplicity, however, admirable musical drama unfolds. From the outset, we get the foot-tapping rhythm and guitar-picking backbone of an old folk song, juxtaposed with smoky-voiced Jenn Wasner’s teasingly blurred phrasing; she has mastered the Stipean trick of allowing us to discern intermittent words but few extended thoughts. The impression of ancient folkiness is deepened by the steady recurrence of one particular three-note descending guitar line that we first hear at 0:10. There is something timeless and troubadoury in this motif, which repeats every 10 seconds or so for the better part of the song. When it comes missing at around 1:02 is in fact when we know that something is up, the moment pretty much coinciding with the recognition that the open-ended verses may not be leading us to a chorus after all. The three-note motif is here replaced with a more suspenseful, more electric guitar riff that doesn’t end up transforming anything but the volume, which cranks up a few notches at 1:19, thanks to the influx of fuzzy guitars and Andy Stack’s abruptly fuller-bodied drumbeat. Any chance we had previously to decipher Wasner is gone; Stack clearly doesn’t want us to hear her now.
Meanwhile the unresolved verses keep the ear waiting, vaguely, expectantly. And who knew? What we were waiting for, arriving at 2:36, is a squealing squalling outbreak of Wasner’s guitar, which obliterates the three-note motif and pretty much everything else in its path. She returns the favor to her partner, as guitar now pretty much manhandles the rhythm section in what surely will remain one of 2011’s best solos.