REVIEW: Wye Oak – ‘Shriek’

wye oak

Artist: Wye Oak
Album: Shriek
Genre: Indie Rock
Label: Merge

Just because there’s two people in a band doesn’t mean they’re limited to two instruments. Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have been creating a sound bolder than that which two people would make, Wasner leaping about with her guitar and vocals while Stack expertly drums with one hand and plays the keys with the other. In a sense, 2011’s Civilian placed them in the ranks of The White Stripes, Japandroids, and Matt & Kim by upholding an equally stiff backbone when it comes to a declarative sound. Wye Oak have never been as loud as any of them, they’re still undoubtedly an indie rock band. Over the years, Wasner clings to her guitar like a young girl clings to her stuffed animal. It’s her baton, her safety net, her sword. But like any headstrong band, the two wanted to test new waters on their next album, meaning that same guitar took, for the very first time, a break.

Shriek is Wye Oak’s conscious decision to take the guitar out of rock and replace it with the cool surface of synth keys. It was a decision that would not only push them, but push their listeners. With any change comes the acceptance of a new definition, a band changing their sound; for Wye Oak, this meant ditching the very sound that prompted their success three years ago: Wasner’s fierce guitar.

Diving into a world unknown takes guts. That first breath before taking the plunge takes form in the song’s brilliant opening track, “Before.” It’s a dream pop whisper that rides on Stack’s steady drumming, the soft gleam of the synth, and Wasner’s beautifully glossy vocals. Wasner frequents falsettos this time around, putting the melody in her voice instead of the guitar, drawing circles in the sky and waves all around her, occasionally getting tangled up playfully with the synth like in “Schools of Eyes” or the beautiful title track.

The warning banner of Wye Oak going guitar-less isn’t as daunting as it seems. Wasner swapped one guitar for the other, picking up bass after setting down her electric. In subdued ways, it works. There’s the frenzied build-up on “Paradise,” the sassy told-you-so bass line on “Glory,” and the slow roll funk of “The Tower.” Wasner isn’t letting loose on the six-string, but she is keeping the ball rolling with a four-string this time around.

For all of Wasner’s claims that, for once, she needed to get the synth out—and her fear of messing up Wye Oak’s “sound” in the process—she sounds too reserved. This isn’t baby’s first time toying with synth. Side projects Flock Of Dimes and Dungeonesse both saw her experimenting with her love for the instrument and were often her go-to bands to get the synth out. Now that she has the chance to instill that in Wye Oak and gave fans a proper warning, she didn’t deliver the type of sound expected from someone who seems so drawn to the instrument that she’s willing to sacrifice her band’s popularity for.

When Aimee Mann and Ted Leo announced they would release a record together under the moniker The Both, critics were upset that the resulting record sounded like, well, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. There was no reinventing, just two pals merging their sounds together. Wye Oak have done some reinventing, bringing structural changes to their sound with the swapping of guitar for synth, but there’s a hesitation that’s irritating. It’s there on the aimlessly wandering “Logic of Color” and deadbeat “Sick Talk.” If you want something, don’t just reach for it; grab it, examine it, and make it your own.

It’s exciting hearing well-loved musicians push themselves. Should we reward them for being brave and putting out a good album? Yeah, of course. But this isn’t nearly as rewarding of a listen as Civilian. From a band that gave their all previously, it’s sad to see a change of instrument keep them from running at the same speed. Wye Oak were ready for the change-up that is Shriek, but they cut their experimentation short by thinking fans weren’t.

SCORE: 6.4/10
Review written by Nina Corcoran (follow her on Twitter)

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