A long-standing Fingertips favorite, the duo Wye Oak continues to produce music that feels effortless and compelling. Despite my general familiarity with their history, each new recording of theirs manages to hit my ears in unexpected ways. “Oh,” I end up saying to myself, “that’s what they sound like this time.”
The ongoing constant is Jenn Wasner’s voice—smoky, yearning, articulate, unyielding. We begin in a sparse setting, devoid of time signature, just Wasner and a few piano chords. This is striking as an opening salvo—not a standard introduction, it is in fact the song’s first verse, waded rather than plunged into. We end up in the middle of the first verse without quite realizing how we got there—perhaps an apt mirror of how someone afraid of heights has to trick herself into making the upward journey.
As the song develops lyrically, the ostensible subject transforms into a metaphor about the difficulties and rewards of a long-term relationship. The idea of being afraid of heights is, I think, easier to grasp and/or acknowledge as a physical concept than as an emotional one; as such, linking the two informs both sides of the challenge.
A potentially weighty concept? Maybe. And yet handily presented at a pop-perfection length of 3:34, gliding forth with a gratifying momentum that feels at once circular and syncopated. Building off its piano-based opening, the song juxtaposes verses with musical space between lyrics against a declarative chorus, offering one thought: “You say it’s worth it for the view.” Wasner’s self-harmonies add gorgeous texture. A bridge section intervenes with a cascade of phrases pivoting around the recurring sentence “I am a woman.” It is mysterious and powerful. To top it off we get a Bowie-like saxophone (or sax sound, in any case) playing the song out from 3:00 onward.
Wye Oak has lately been releasing singles in lieu of albums. “Fear of Heights” came out in January, more recently available, via KEXP, as a free and legal MP3. Their latest single is “Walk Soft,” available via Bandcamp. This is the band’s fifth feature on Fingertips, dating back to 2008.