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.
When Jenn Wasner’s multi-tracked vocals arrive, they wash into the song in full-on School of Seven Bells fashion and, with the ongoing jig of synthesizers, conjure some sort of soaring, hopeful ache that seems to make life both challenging and worth living at the same time.
Both dreamy and driven, the title track from the new Wye Oak album chugs to a brisk, intricate-sounding 4/4 beat, propelled by an array of synth lines with enough texture and zest to support the 57-second introduction. (Listen in particular for the pentatonic arpeggios punctuated by percussive stabs and distant twiddles on top.) When Jenn Wasner’s multi-tracked vocals arrive, they wash into the song in full-on School of Seven Bells fashion and, with the ongoing jig of synthesizers, conjure some sort of soaring, hopeful ache that seems to make life both challenging and worth living at the same time.
And okay that’s a lot to put on an indie rock song, or any song for that matter. So let’s get back to the music itself, and specifically the guitar work. Do you even notice it? There in the chorus, that distorted, antic melody underpinning Wasner’s repetition of the titular phrase, that’s her partner Andy Stack on guitar. The sound is charming and inventive as it intertwines with the staccato synths and Wasner’s plain-spoken vocals, producing in its entirety a song that feels very alive, very of the moment. So…can we lay to rest, yet, the streaming-induced hand-wringing about the death of rock? Is getting three million streams the only legitimate goal in musical life? There are smart young musicians out there who find artistic merit in extending the spectrum of rock’n’roll history to include what they’re trying to say and do. Part of separating ourselves from the 21st century’s digital trance involves remembering there is more to music than virality. There’s more to everything than virality.
“The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs” is available as an MP3 via KEXP. The album was just released this past week on Merge Records. Wye Oak has been featured on Fingertips three previous times, dating back to 2008 (see the Artist Index for details).
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.
“Civilian” is the title track to Wye Oak’s forthcoming album, slated for a March release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge. Wye Oak has previously appeared on Fingertips in both 2008 and 2009.
The appealing sense of gliding momentum that propels “Zebra”? It’s due entirely to a rhythm based on three beats rather than four, but one which has nothing to do with either the waltzing rhythm yielded by a 3/4 beat or the bluesy shuffle of a 12/8 beat. I’m guessing we’re dealing with 6/4, but in any case the movement here is hypnotic; rooted in three beats but without any swing–it’s all one-two-three-one-two-three, no ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three–there’s a continual feeling of being carried along in anticipation, like a wave that rolls and rolls but never breaks.
Even the chorus, with its delightful opening hook (the inching-up-three-half-steps melody of “Anywhere you run”) and nifty chord changes, is musically satisfying but doesn’t really give us any deep resolution, being too nimbly constructed, not to mention too busy tricking our ear into hearing syncopation that doesn’t really exist. All in all the song is like a lovely little dream–shepherded by Victoria Legrand’s commanding and all but gender-free alto, built with brisk but evasive dynamics, leaving an impression of having happened but without a clear sense of how or why.
“Zebra” originally appeared on Teen Dream, the Baltimore-based duo’s third album, which came out in January on Sub Pop. This is a slightly different version, the so-called “UK Radio Edit,” which can be found on the Zebra EP released by for Record Store Day in April. MP3 via Sub Pop. And somehow the P.S. 22 Chorus in NYC got a hold of this song; you can watch their version in the video below.