In the wake of what could be considered Wye Oak’s “breakthrough” release in 2011, Civilian, I used to joke that singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner was doing anything to get out of making another Wye Oak album. In the promotion leading up to their outstanding fourth full-length, Shriek, it turns out I wasn’t that far off.
For a band that had released something every year since their humble beginnings in 2008, the Baltimore duo was very quiet through 2012 and 2013. Wasner released a series of 7” singles under her “vanity project” Flock of Dimes—very dark, somewhat experimental pop music, then later joined up with another B-More native, John Eck, to form the 80s and 90s Top 40/R&B homage project Dungeonesse, releasing a self-titled LP last year.
As it turns out, Wasner was burnt out on playing the guitar after the incessant touring the Wye Oak did behind Civilian—so the big news about Shriek is that it is a “guitarless” record—with Andy Stack still manning the drums and playing the keyboard (somehow he does it at the same time, too, when they play live), Wasner opted to pick up the bass guitar.
Shriek is not a “drum and bass” record though (get it? It’s a joke you guys.) What it is, however, is a statement of beauty, and the sound of a band that has grown exponentially in the last six years, becoming more confident with each subsequent release, refusing to allow themselves to be pigeonholed into being a post-Yo La Tengo dreamy, jangly indie rock outfit.
The duo’s more direct and obvious incorporation of synthesizers dates back to 2010, with the My Neighbor/My Creator EP, so this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that has followed the trajectory of the band. It is a little jarring at first to go from such a “rock” record like Civilian into something like Shriek. Despite the usage of bass guitar and more reliance on programmed drums and synth washes, this is far from a “pop” record—thankfully Wasner is able to leave that behind with Dungeonesse. This is still very much a Wye Oak record: it’s dark, it’s thoughtful, and it’s often heartbreaking.
“This morning, I woke up on the floor, thinking that I had never dreamed before,” is the opening lyric to the opening track, “Before.” Wasner has always had a knack for delivering lines that convey an awful sense of desperation—she’s done it before on The Knot’s “Take It In” (“We are both the same; unwell”) and every lyric to Civilian’s devastating closing track “Doubt.” Here, the desperation and loneliness file in almost effortlessly with Stack’s rhythmic drumming shuffling along to synthesizer sequencing.
Shriek, for many reasons, is the kind of record to be in awe of. One of those reasons is how it strikes the perfect balance between serious lyricisms with a somewhat poppy, unfamiliar musical soundscape. Not every band would be smart enough to pull this off, but this record is nearly flawless, and through its relatively short running time, they explore numerous ways to incorporate a non-organic sound into their dynamic without it coming off as derivative or inauthentic. This is an album that works best as a whole—one sitting, start to finish.
Wasner and Stack cover a rollercoaster of emotions on Shriek, building the album very deliberately over ten tracks, before ending it on the relatively optimistic high note of “Logic of Color.” And there is plenty of effects pedal fuckery added in for a layer of dissonance, weaved into the synth washes and percussion.
In some early promotional material for Shriek, Wasner joked about using the words “pocket” and “funky” after the incorporation of the bass into the duo’s sound. And while this is a relatively serious album, there are some moments where “funky” actually applies—specifically as the album builds up steam in the middle section with “Glory,” “Sick Talk,” and on the very St. Vincent-y “School of Eyes.” And whether it is unintentional or not, there are some real “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” vibes coming from the groove on “Despicable Animal.”
When I saw Wye Oak play live last, in support of Civilian, Wasner did a mic check by singing the opening verse to Usher’s “Nice ‘n Slow.” Between that and her work with Dungeonesse, her love of smoove R&B jamz is very apparent, but it’s something that hasn’t really surfaced within her work in Wye Oak until now—the slow burning “I Know The Law” is one of Shriek’s finest moments: where plaintive synths eventually give way to total dissonance in the end, and Wasner’s vocals call to mind both a kind of pleading, as well as a slight sensuality, leading up to her overlapping coos of “I know,” as the song spirals into a wash of noise.
Over the course of the last three years, I haven’t so much lost the ability to measure time, per se, but I’m having a difficult time remembering when things occurred—like it’s all kind of become one long, incredibly emotional blur. Something that helps with this, believe it or not, is the release date of certain records. Civilian came out in March of 2011, during a rather trying point in my life, so listening to those songs now is some what difficult to do without bringing up a lot of things I’d rather not. Some people may not see Wye Oak’s music as being as emotionally charged as I do. On “Before,” I found it very startling, but somewhat fitting, that one of the lyrics is “I can’t remember what came before.”
For a band that has continued to mature with each subsequent release, Shriek is not so much the “next logical step forward” but it is one gigantic leap that nobody suspected, and it’s really tough to say if they’ll ever go back to a more guitar driven sound. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Wye Oak continue to make thoughtful, profound, and interesting music. Shriek is a record full of surprises, and it’s the kind of album that we should all be thankful exists, welcoming us as listeners into its many layers.
Kevin also runs his own music review website called Anhedonic Headphones, which we think is spectacular.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he has been an occasional contributor to Bearded Gentlemen Music. From December 2013 until its the summer of 2017, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine, and from the summer of 2017, until the fall of 2018, wrote “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing also regularly appears in The Wagazine and in River Valley Woman. At the beginning of 2019, he launched the all new Anhedonic Headphones podcast, which you may subscribe to in such legitimate outlets as iTunes and Google Play.
He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.