Wye Oak The Knot

[Merge; 2009]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: country rock, shoegaze, indie pop
Others: The Rosebuds, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Stars

Wye Oak’s sophomore album, The Knot, begins with what might be the best opening salvo on an album so far this year. A percussive rattle is the first sound heard, establishing the milieu of the record as a collection of countrified, chain gang hymnals. This song, “Milk and Honey,” sounds older than it is, as if it were preserved, dug up from a swamp. Jenn Wasner, the de facto frontwoman for Wye Oak, has a gentle but potent voice. As soon as “Milk and Honey” lulls away, she snaps to action with “For Prayer” -- her range is modest, but the power of her voice is never as apparent as it is on this song. Sharp as it is in pitch, Wasner has the ability to cut, to bleed us when she so desires. “For Prayer” — a song of praise, peppered with regret — swings from rueful verse to thunderingly wordless chorus. Its sense of tension and release is literally breathtaking. But while the clear emotional impact of these first two songs is undeniable, it's also unmatched by the remainder of The Knot.

The Knot is top-loaded, not only in the sense that its best songs are found at the start, but also in that it becomes progressively less interesting as it continues. “Take It In” features a similar rhythm to “For Prayer,” with a nice cascading bridge and loud bursts of mud-caked guitar, but its length becomes wearing. “Mary Is Mary” also suffers from the same over-length issue. Seven-minute-long songs require a fair amount of tension to sustain the mood. Yo La Tengo, one of Wye Oak’s oft-cited influences, has spent decades honing their craft, finding ways to patiently build quiet storms into loud squalls. Wye Oak tries but ultimately fails to imbue “Mary Is Mary” with enough tension to keep these slow-burning songs from snuffing out. And sadly, aside from the first two songs, this is largely true of the album as a whole.

Wye Oak's failure to live up to those opening songs should be forgiven, if only for the fact that this is only their second album (in as many years, no less), and that its members are still a little wet behind the years. While youth can sometimes be a handicap, it in this case serves as an excuse, an explanation for a certain lack of depth and experience. It's difficult, unfair even, to blame a band for not "living up to their potential." Besides, there are few young bands who’ve staked their ground as fiercely as Wye Oak. Their distinct blend of shoegaze and Americana sounds more natural than it should, while remaining, at most, vaguely reminiscent of other bands. Once the clarity of their songwriting matches their musical vision, there won't be any need to keep peppering praise with regret.

1. Milk and Honey
2. For Prayer
3. Take It In
4. Siamese
5. Talking About Money
6. Mary is Mary
7. Tattoo
8. I Want for Nothing
9. That I Do
10. Sight, Flight

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