Wye Oak goes nomadic
Baltimore duo expands horizons with 'Shriek'
That old cliché that "less is more" is frequently true. What people don't realize, however, is that for "less" to be "more," less has to do more. By banishing auxiliary cooks from an undersized kitchen, a skeleton crew can shoulder more responsibility, move efficiently, and get a better job done. Less distortion in the signal chain, to employ yet another metaphor.
That's the ethos guiding Baltimore-based indie rock duo Wye Oak, who have made impressive strides in sound while maintaining a slim roster. The multi-talented pair of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack create quartet-sized music without clogging its lineup with arbitrary clutter. Throughout their initial trio of albums, all released via Merge Records, Wasner offers lush guitarscapes and a dreamland voice, while Stack takes on the roll of keyboardist and drummer, simultaneously.
Their latest offering, Shriek, saw the band drawn apart geographically, but coming closer aesthetically. "We didn't actually ever really set foot in the same room while the record was being written," Stack says from his new home in Marfa, Tex. For the last year, Stack and his fiancée have lived outside of Baltimore, first in Portland, Ore., now in the Lone Star State. So he and Wasner traded tracks via the Internet. Those who might be curious if this open-ended manner of writing might free up these utilitarian musicians — who are so used to having their hands full while multi-tasking live — might be surprised to know that the live show has never factored into their writing. "It's always been a studio project, and for almost all of our material, the live version has been something that's come after the fact," Stack says. "Between the two of us, I'll play drums and do a couple guitar tracks and keyboards and bass, and Jen will sing and play a couple guitar tracks and keyboard tracks. After the fact we have to pare it down and figure out what matters, what needs to stay, and what needs to go."
Any listener will detect a sea change in Shriek's buoyant synths and decidedly tough bass playing. The absence of guitar in favor of its four-stringed cousin can be attributed to one of Wasner's side gigs: playing bass with Ethio-prog avant-rock combo Horse Lords. But without the harmonic anchor of guitar chords, she has freed herself up melodically, and it shows. "Her writing on bass allowed her to get a little more acrobatic with her vocal parts," Stack says. "It opened up this real estate that previously had been guitar-heavy — and her vocals always hid behind that in a way, which was deliberate. But she's worked on her voice a lot over the past couple of years."
Another avenue for Wasner's vocal development has been the shameless pop side project Dungeonesse, a duo with John Ehrens. But even if the distance between them didn't introduce new problems, the isolation likely fostered new ideas.
The fruits of Wye Oak's creative expansion are most evident in the single "The Tower," which features a charming showstopper of a video directed by Ben O'Brien, auteur-in-residence of Baltimore's oddball Wham City collective. The song's offbeat rhythms and Arthur Russell-esque cello reflect ideas rather dissimilar than anything ever produced by Wasner and Stack's collaboration. But the signature Wye Oak elements — most markedly, Wasner's world-weary voice — remain intact. There are aspects of the band that will likely never be ruptured by their distance. And for the record, Stack says, "we're definitely still a Baltimore band."