I used to work in radio, and whenever I’d play Wye Oak during my show, I’d refer to them as a ‘Baltimore-based duo,’ however, on all accounts, that is no longer the case.
I no longer work in radio, and haven’t for a number of years. And you can no longer call Wye Oak a ‘Balitmore-based duo.’ Andy Stack, at one time living in Portland, Oregon, now lives in Marfa, Texas, and Jenn Wasner lives in Durham, North Carolina. That being said, the literal distance that separates the two parts of the group is not all that apparent on the band’s fifth proper album1, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs; but the figurative distance is—Wye Oak has, for at least the last four years now, been a band that has made a habit out of rarely, if ever, looking back, while running headfirst into the future.
It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs arrives, ten years almost to the date after Merge Records reissued their auspicious and charming debut, If Children, as if you needed another reminder that they are not that band anymore, nor will (or can) they ever be again.
There’s no going backward, even if Wye Oak wanted to.
If Children2 is representative of that time—Wasner and Stack were, at one point, romantically involved, and both barely in their 20s when they formed Wye Oak. AT that point, Stack sang lead vocals on a handful of songs, something he hasn’t done since then, and the album itself is heavily steeped in a fuzzy, ramshackle, jangly post-Yo La Tengo style of indie rock.
How many bands formed in the mid-2000s made it out in one piece, and are still working today?
Wye Oak, as strange as it sounds to describe a band this way, is a story of survival and evolution.
Following the release of their acclaimed third album, Civilian, their darkest and most visceral, Stack and Wasner toured incessantly in support of it. In the aftermath, they found themselves burned out on the idea of the band, with Wasner uninterested in picking up the guitar again to write more songs, and her and Stack living on opposite sides of the country.
Taking a three year break in between releases, Shriek, the band’s fourth record, found them deconstructing the idea of the duo—exponentially more synthesizers and glitchy electronics were incorporated, as well as Wasner trading out the guitar for the bass. The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs finds the duo picking up from there, and gallantly moving forward. Comprised of ten ‘real’ songs, one segue, and one obligatory intro, it finds Stack and Wasner putting together some of the most exhilarating and triumphant sounding music of their career.
While Civilian was their darkest album, there’s always been a gloomy shadow following Wye Oak around.
Lyrically, Wasner can cut right to the heart when she wants to. I’m reminded of the deadpan way she utters, “We are both the same—unwell,” on the song “Take it In,” off their sophomore release, The Knot; it’s a line that still impacts me to this day, nine years after the fact.
“Suffering,” Wasner coos in her now iconic, husky register, “I remembered suffering.” These are the first words you hear on The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs taken from the second track, “The Instrument.” And they are backed by jubilant arrays of synthesizers and skittering percussion, creating a stark juxtaposition. Later, the song crashes head first into a gigantic sounding refrain—the first of many moments like this on the record, making a large portion The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs some of the most bombastic, dynamic music Wye Oak has made thus far.
On the album’s titular track, Stack and Wasner find a pensive, yet slithering and slinking groove to settle into, while Wasner repeats “The louder I call, the faster it runs,” like a mantra; later, on the slow burning “It Was Not Natural,” Wasner seemingly dissects the struggle of maintaining the work ethic needed for creativity—“I have to work, or else I will not recognize myself,” she sings. “I am too busy for it,” she adds later on in the song’s second verse. “Or else I am not busy enough.”
As the album hits the halfway point, Wasner and Stack create a nervy tension with the anxious, pulsing rhythm and digital urgency of “Symmetry.”
I hesitate to say that The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is paced unevenly, but it seems structured with the majority of its palatable material in the front half.
The hoot and stomp of “Over and Over” is one of the album’s least successful tracks, and when compared to the other songs on the record, and as it works toward the conclusion, the energy of the record kind of comes to a screeching halt on “You of All People,” and “Join,” the former of which is a pretty good song—full of Wasner’s soaring voice and dramatic guitar strums; it’s just super slow.
There are some real stand out moments on The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs one of which arrives early on in the recently released single “Lifer.”
It’s one of the few moments that recall the “old” Wye Oak sound, or at least, their old aesthetic. It’s missing the myriad synthesizers that are found on the rest of the record, and it’s probably the most guitar-driven, including a searing solo within the song’s final act. The song shuffles along somberly, with a simmering tautness that the band never lets get away from them, even during the solo. Thematically, it’s also one of the album’s most personal, as Wasner recently revealed in a lengthy and honest note regarding all of the weight within the song.
“Say Hello” is one of the other most successful tracks, arriving just after the halfway interlude “My Signal”—despite the minor downcast inflection on Wasner’s voice throughout the song, musically, there’s both something bittersweet as well as hopefully, or at the very least, optimistic about it, as it continues to grow in magnitude and explode as you listen.
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs concludes not so much unceremoniously, but somewhat abruptly, with the give and take between the tension and bombastic release on “I Know It’s Real.”
While Wye Oak have made a habit, in recent years at least, of pushing their sound forward, there are still bits and pieces of their past to be found in The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs; and, surprisingly enough, if you go back far enough and listen to If Children, you’ll hear early attempts at incorporating their current aesthetic into those songs.
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is not a defining artistic statement for Wye Oak.
Arguably that is the make or break desperation and immediacy of Civilian; however, this time around, it finds Wasner and Stack growing more comfortable into the sonic palate they’ve found themselves in. With even a quick comparison to Shriek, you can hear the growth and confidence they’ve developed within the last four years, creating dense, thought provoking ‘alternative pop music,’ and operating fearlessly as they do it.
1- For what it’s worth, neither I, nor the band, consider their surprise 2016 collection, Tween, to be a proper album. Despite the incorrect description in reviews, it is a set of ‘orphaned’ songs that were cut from Shriek, as well as being deemed not quite right for The The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs.
2- I stop short of saying that The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is the sound of a band that can never go home again; however, in revisiting If Children I was struck by the liner notes, where Wasner and Stack thank the city of Baltimore, calling it ‘our home.’
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is out on special edition LP, regular ass LP, and CD, on April 6th, via Merge.