To hijack Lady Macbeth, Baltimore’s Wye Oak are both the innocent flower serpent under’t. On paper (or Tumblr), they’re an adorable boy-girl folk-rock duo replete with bangs, doe eyes, nerdy glasses, some tasteful twang, and a bit of fuzz to keep things real. They’re marketable, mixtape-able, Starbucks-able. But IRL, their music ambushes you, burning not just barns but whole plantations, taut with latent ferocity and brooding bitterness. With one hand, Andy Stack rolls out layers of glistering synth; with the other, he concurrently builds a foreboding bass-drum-heavy tromp, unifying rhythm and melody without the flourish you’d expect from such a show of ambidexterity. Jenn Wasner’s wine-dark vocals curl up in your gut while her charred picking leaps from the murk like the lightning that took down their centuries-old namesake on a summer night in 2002.
In the past, they’ve struggled to find a balance of Karo and kerosene that makes the most of their slippery sound: their debut, If Children, a victim of the truncated gestation period for young bands in the internet age, felt (and often fell) flat due to an excess of twinkle and No Depression trappings, while its much more robust follow-up, The Knot, relied a tad too much on abrupt bluffs of riffage to maintain interest. Relinquishing production duties for the first time on Civilian, Wye Oak put their trust in John Congleton, a polymath who’s worked with everyone from Baroness to R. Kelly, who digs out the bottom end, pulls the percussion forward, and generally smooths over the creases to crystallizing effect.
This time around, even the grittiest jabs of guitar feel totally integrated into the songs that contain them, as on “Holy Holy,” which switches from pulsating verse etched with Shadow of a Doubt harmonics to piercing Branca’d caterwaul with consummate agility. There’s no denying Wye Oak’s grasp of sonic texture and dynamics — “Hot as Day” builds into a euphoric, static-crested rush, and the title track falls into distorted entropy with organic grace — but spare songwriting and unmemorable lyrics make Civilian a wearying listen if played too often or too long. It’s no great help that Wasner’s voice, lovely as it is, seems only capable of conveying emotions within the range of ‘wistful’ to ‘plaintive.’
The band may be named after a tree, but they bring us to a desert place, a place of extremes, of lonesomeness, of sameness. Not the desert of Bedouin charges, or imposing dunes, or cactus blossoms, or deep-cut canyons, but the Bonneville Salt Flats or the land of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, equally conducive to moments of transcendent peace and stony desolation. Even as it limits the album’s appeal as much as it does the band’s chances of broader success, Wye Oak’s stylistic purity is a virtue in itself.