‘Civilian’ By Wye Oak.
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Baltimore duo Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack collectively known as Wye Oak are back with a stunning new album, ‘Civilian.’ It’s their third long player and is without doubt the sound of a band really coming of age. The duo’s previous offerings ‘If Children ‘and ‘The Knot’ were both critically well received and whilst showcasing the huge talent and potential the band undoubtedly have , both barely caused a ripple on this side of the pond. With the release of ‘Civilian’ all that has changed, Wye Oak have produced a superb album that manages to sound epic yet understated, mournful yet incredibly uplifting. Such contradictory statements make perfect sense when you consider the songs are, as Jenn explains, about ‘aloneness (the positive kind), loneliness (the horrible kind), moving on, and letting go (of people, places, and things.)” Soft spectral vocals weave around a dreamy wall of sound conjuring up the ghosts of Fraser and Guthrie, a gently strummed guitar suddenly bursts into life with a virtuoso display of guitar shredding, splashes of pulsing electronic samples mix with choral harmonies and all these elements combine perfectly to slowly draw in and seduce the listener.
Mixing noise with calm, Wye Oak’s songs often flare and explode like fireworks illuminating a hidden landscape to reveal fleeting glimpses of beauty. Their decision to relinquish control of production duties by bringing in mixing engineer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Shearwater) has paid dividends, a fact not lost on Andy – ‘ JC definitely pushed us into some exciting and sometimes scary new territory, but it gave us a chance to step back and see the big picture, whereas on previous recordings we got embroiled in the technical details.”
There is so much to admire here, from the musicianship, to Jenn’s distinctive haunting vocal style, to the unconventional, yet utterly mesmerising structure of the songs. ‘Civilian’ is an album that balances subtly with power, and creates a sound that may hint at certain influences but is never defined or constrained by them. Wye Oak have created a sound that is uniquely their own, it’s a sound that shimmers, soothes and also challenges the listener’s expectations- as all great music should.
Album Rating 8.5/10.
Jenn had a chinwag with us about writing and recording the album as well as playing their first headline shows in the UK.
VP: Hello! You’ve just released your latest album ‘Civilian’ here in the UK. People often describe albums as – the tricky second album or the difficult third. Are these media myths – Did you find writing and recording it any more difficult than your debut?
JENN: I actually felt better prepared to make this newest record than any of the past ones. In my mind, the first two records were “growing” records for us. We started this band when we were so young and inexperienced, and for the past few years we’ve really just been learning–how to feel comfortable with our live setup, how to record, how to be confident songwriters and effective arrangers. There were certainly moments of fear and self-doubt throughout the recording process, but I don’t imagine those feelings will ever go away. In most ways, I felt more comfortable and confident making “Civilian” than anything we’ve made in the past.
VP: You normally look after the production yourselves but I believe this time around you brought in John Congleton on this album? What made you look to bring somebody else in ?
JENN: One of the most important things we’ve learned is how to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, and allow others to use their strengths to help us fully realize our ideas. John is an incredibly gifted engineer and producer, and he was able to achieve things with the mix of the record that we ourselves would have been unable to execute.
VP: The central themes running through the album relate to religion, divinity, (whatever that may mean to people?) Would you say you were more spiritual rather than overtly religious people ?
JENN: There are certainly some religious references and spiritual overtones in some of my songs, but I definitely feel that they’re based in ideas far more human than divine. I would describe myself as a confused, awed, open-minded agnostic.
VP: Do you come up with lyrics and then build melodies around it or vice versa? How does the process normally work?
JENN: It’s different for every song. I try to faithfully document all of my lyrical and melodic ideas separately (usually using the notebook and voice recording functions on my iphone. The future is here and it’s awesome.) When I get some spare time, I can sit down and compare notes, figure out which musical ideas might fit with my lyrical ones. Every once and a while a complete song just takes shape inside of my head, but that sort of thing is special and rare.
VP: You’ve recently played your first headline show in the UK , was it all that you expected and hoped for ?
JENN: Headlining is always very fun and special for us, it’s great after weeks of support shows to stretch out, play some new things, and perform in front of an audience that’s there to see us specifically. We had a blast, can’t wait to come back.
VP: ‘Civilian’ has certainly generated more media interest in Wye Oak in the UK than previous albums, do you think this is the album that really does show you reaching a creative peak ?
JENN: I definitely think it’s our best record to date, and I’m glad that it’s getting more attention than the others. I’m proud of it, and I think we’re a much more comfortable and assured band after a few years of touring and recording. It makes sense all of our work thus far has brought us to this point.
VP: You’re both from Baltimore, would you say the creative scene there is very supportive for musicians?
JENN: I couldn’t feel any luckier to live in Baltimore right now. The quality and quantity of the music and art that’s being produced in our city at the moment is jaw-dropping. I’m constantly overwhelmed by it all. Better yet, in addition to being an inspiring and exciting place, its also a very comfortable and supportive feeling scene. It feels far less competitive than a lot of places; people here are genuinely excited to work with one another.
VP: You’ve both played music from an early age through school/college, some people let this tail off as they pursue other qualifications/careers, what was it that made you both want to form a band?
JENN: I’ve always known that music has been the one thing in my life that I love most, am consistently drawn to produce, and it’s pretty much what I’m best at. There never really was much of a “Plan B” for me.
VP: What have been your most memorable moments as a band thus far?
JENN: Finding out that Merge Records wanted to work with us was a big one, as was our recent signing with the amazing City Slang label in the EU. I don’t know…there aren’t as many standout moments as much as a general sense of awe and amazement that we’ve been given the opportunity to do this, and meet and perform with so many wonderful and gifted artists along the way.
VP: I’ve read in the past that you’re not keen on labeling your music. What’s been the most bizarre or annoying you’ve read about your music?
JENN: I get confused when people call us an “acoustic-folk duo”. I haven’t played an acoustic guitar in front of an audience since I was fifteen years old.
VP: What’s the plan for 2011 ?
JENN: Live well, tour often, make new songs, don’t go insane.
VP: Five words to sum up your week?
JENN: Ecstatically happy to be home.
Civilization (Acosutic) By Wye Oak