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Wye Oak – Shriek

There’s always a backlash when musicians change direction. Sometimes it seems that the more ‘out there’ and experimental a band might be, the more this risk is run; the more their fans, who you might have expected to be just as experimental, demand the right to keep their heroes in straight jackets. So let’s spit it out and get over it, Wye Oak’s new album ‘Shriek’ is 100% guitar free, but the electro pop that’s there instead is pretty damn sweet.

Somewhere in the afterburn of their marvellous last album ‘Civilian’, Jenn Wasner’s muse deserted her. Blocked, nada, exhausted, zilch. Which was kinda poignant, given that last time I saw and chatted with them, in London in 2011 when ‘Civilian’ was brand new and shiny, Andy Stack told me that Jenn was riding an absolute creative high, and it seemed with side projects on the go as well ( Flock Of Dimes, Dungeonesse) that there was no stopping her. But somewhere that creative well just dwindled and drained.

They got on with their lives. Andy moved to Portland while Jenn remained in their spiritual home of Baltimore. They carried on trying to make music. Then, by all accounts, Jenn put down the guitar and gave it a go on the bass. What, you might say, just two strings less? But what that achieved was to turn their partnership upside down and back to front.

Anyone who’s ever seen them will know that they could only ever exist as a duo, that’s why Andy has to do that natty ‘drums with one hand, keys with the other’ combo, and why they’ve never gone for a touring drummer. But Andy was always the backbone, the engine room, and that’s the role-reversal that four strings have achieved. Of course it’s still Jenn’s vocal, and her writing, but Andy’s keys, the electro, is now totally front stage and forward facing.

And do you know what, despite being a massive fan of their earlier persona, I like this, a helluva lot. Yes at first listen, what did I say to the PR who asked me for feedback? I said it reminded me “in bits of a Hawaiian luau” or even Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. Neither of those are a bad thing, but neither are what I now think, now that I’ve given the album chance to breathe and just take it for what it is.

To compare them with themselves, the sound is bigger, more confident and less secretive. It was always a ‘thing’ that Jenn at times whispered breathily and confidentially around the guitar. The nearest this gets is on one of the two early release tracks, the utterly gorgeous ‘Glory’, but when it breaks at 1:28, Jenn’s vocal blossoms forth like a Californian desert after rain, while in the old days that would have stayed buried in fog. So if the block forced them back to basics, as they say to perspiration before they found inspiration, well I’m sorry for your pain Ms. Wasner, but we’ve all benefitted.

‘Sick Talk’ is the one where I’d made the slightly unkind luau comparison – this isn’t a record for a hurried listen in the car or on the tube. Leave space to listen to the layering, the pause and gaps between the buzzy bass notes. That and title track ‘Shriek’ both sport the sort of complex, jazz-like arpeggios that are working so well for St. Vincent right now. The other early release track, ‘The Tower’ sounds like the old Wye Oak played the new way; it’s major strength being the warm blanket and intimacy of Jenn’s vocal in the first quarter, no mumble in sight.

Where the keys do sound a tad Casio, this is surely designed to contrast bouncy simplicity alongside alienated lyrics such as “I see schools of eyes where there should be faces”. There’s complexity a-plenty elsewhere, in ‘Paradise’ and the the whole thing signs off with the uplift of closing track ‘Logic Of Color’.

One thing’s for certain: no-one will ever call them a folk duo again.

I’m determined to get this out today, the more so since the whole album has just gone up to stream on NPR – listen to it HERE

They have UK dates coming up

10.06. London UK – Islington Assembly Hall

11.06. Manchester UK – Soup Kitchen

12.06. Leeds UK – The Brudenell Social Club

13.06. Glasgow SCT – King Tuts


[Rating:4]

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.