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Wye Oak, 'Shriek' (Merge)( Handout / April 25, 2014 )
RATING: *** 1/2 out of ****
"Before," the opening track to Wye Oak's fourth album (out Tuesday), is about an awakening. The first words are "This morning I woke up on the floor, thinking 'I have never dreamed before.'" The song is gorgeous and unsettling -- a common trait of most tracks made by the indie-rock duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack -- but it also marks a new chapter for one of Baltimore's most popular bands. "I am brand new, and also old," Wasner sings.
Although 2011's "Civilian" was the band's most celebrated album, the intense touring schedule that followed left the duo mentally and physically exhausted. Wasner infamously told the Village Voice in 2012, "I feel like a glorified jukebox."
More than three years later, the members have changed. Stack lives in Texas now, while Wasner remains in Baltimore. She made music as a solo act (the project Flock of Dimes) and in collaboration (the '80s-pop-influenced Dungeonesse with Jon Ehrens). But in terms of Wye Oak, the most significant change came when Wasner ditched her guitar and replaced it with the bass. "The decision, in turn, provided Stack with new opportunities to explore different grooves and dynamics."The result is "Shriek," a concise and engaging 10-track record that keeps the most intriguing elements of Wye Oak -- Wasner's lush voice, Stack's sophisticated drum and synth work -- and strips away the old guitar-driven formula of quiet intensity ending in crescendo that had seemed to bore the band.
It is obvious these changes rejuvenated the duo's approach to songwriting, even as they wrote portions of "Shriek" in different time zones. (They would email each other home-recorded parts for the other to add to.)
On "I Know the Law," Wasner's voice floats above the faint, sustained synthesizers until she reaches the emotional payoff of the song's title. When she sings, "I know the law," her voice flutters quickly, in and out of focus. It is a different kind of crescendo than Wye Oak did before, and the impact is richer and more disorienting. "Schools of Eyes," a standout with a funky bassline, has a genuine swing that the old band might have struggled to achieve as naturally. And Stack flourishes as a drummer and most significantly as a keyboardist, especially when he explores more idiosyncratic touches (the off-kilter soloing on the last minute of "Glory," for example).
But amid the changes, it is Wye Oak's ability to write sturdy, continuously rewarding songs that remains its strongest asset. On "Shriek," the route to get there has changed, but the effectiveness of Wasner and Stack's compositions has not.
-- Wesley Case