The guitar/drums duo has become a pervasive entity in Indie Rock in the new millennium, but, as in any musical endeavor, the important aspect is not necessarily the elements in the equation, it’s what they add up to create.
In the case of Baltimore twosome Wye Oak, the elements actually do make a difference. The duo — named after Maryland’s honorary state tree, a nearly 500-year-old oak that stood in Wye Mills until it was toppled in a 2002 storm — is comprised of vocalist/guitarist/bassist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack, and their multi-instrumental abilities give them the capacity to create almost any imaginable soundscape.
Wye Oak grew out of Wasner and Stack’s high school band, which was reduced by half after the loss of less committed members. In honor of their new status, they changed their band name to Monarch, but potential legal issues led them to rechristen themselves Wye Oak. The band self-released its debut album, 2007’s If Children, and the subsequent buzz attracted the attention of Merge Records, which signed the band, reissued the first album in 2008 and released its sophomore album, The Knot, in 2009.
At that point, Wye Oak had moved from a Yo La Tengo-like wall of sound to a dreamier, more contemplative and yet still viscerally dynamic sonic palette, an ethereal path they continued to explore on 2011’s Civilian.
After nabbing high-profile television placements on The Walking Dead and Longmire, Wye Oak released 2014’s Shriek, which represented a huge departure, as Wasner traded guitar for bass and Stack added synthesizers to his arsenal. Although some critics bemoaned the shift, most were impressed by Wasner’s increased confidence as a vocalist and the band’s expansive new territory.
In light of that, the band’s recently released fifth album, Tween, stands as something of an anachronism. The album seems to indicate a return to the guitar squall of earlier Wye Oak efforts, and it is, but simply because the material dates back to the period after Civilian and before Shriek and essentially presents the outtakes that didn’t fit the band’s vision for its last album.
Whether Tween signals Wye Oak’s desire to revisit its guitar-centric sound or is just a vault-clearing exercise, it reinforces the notion that the band is infinitely more interested in the journey than any conceivable destination.
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