(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Recording review - Wye Oak, Shriek (2014)

Muted reinvention can't make a sharp impact

Wye Oak eases into Shriek with the distracted track, “Before”. While the album’s title suggests strong emotions and a cathartic release, this opening song is curiously detached from all outside influences. The lyrics relate an amnesiac’s distracted and confused perspective, but lead singer Jenn Wasner is utterly unruffled. The steady beat of reality is held slightly at bay by the dreamy keyboard washes and serves as an apt setting for someone who feels like “I have never lived/ Or else forgot.” Robbed of expressive intensity, that clockwork rhythm still adds a tension that is never resolved within the confines of the piece. The title track follows, but any hope of resolution quickly fades. The tight indie pop loop offers airbrushed beauty rather than any kind of edge. The pretty sway of the music takes the sonic soul of Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” and filters it through a synth pop sieve. The prickling sense of expectancy and possibility is softened, leaving an amorphous fluidity that offers no grasping point. There’s no question that Wasner’s full, lush voice is an improvement over David Gilmour’s, but, although Gilmour is not a particularly moving singer, he connects with his theme in a deeper way than Wasner can.

This is the fundamental problem with Shriek. Wye Oak has reinvented themselves, abandoning guitar for keyboards and bass. But their new incarnation can’t summon the highs and lows that used to come naturally. Instead, everything is muted and held at arm’s length, like they’re playing on anti-depressants. Reinvention itself is not the issue. Bands have to grow artistically and Wasner and her partner Andy Stack made it clear that a change was necessary for the group to survive. They’ve publicly discussed their burnout and self-doubt in the wake of touring for their 2011 release, Civilian, and moving toward a more electronic sound is certainly intended to push them outside of their comfort zone. Unfortunately, they’ve melted all too complacently into the big sea of electronic pop bands. The group retains the relaxed dreaminess and simple harmonic progressions from their old songs and Wasner’s singing is still warm and rich, but the dynamic shifts that made them stand out are gone along with the guitar. Some of Civilian’s sharp contrasts were tied specifically to that instrument; listen to the layers of seething guitar jump-starting “Holy Holy” or the raw eruption in the middle of the title song. But even Stack’s drumming was livelier and more visceral on their last outing; the loose flow on “Hot as Day” and the nuanced support on “We Were Wealth” serve as fine examples of what he can do.

Not all of the new material is run of the mill, though. When they fully sink into their new sound and then push some boundaries, Wye Oak manages to generate a little more excitement. The bass and drums on “Glory” create a darkly pensive flow, with restless synth framing that adds to the disquiet. The chorus brightens the mood briefly, but the bridge is where the band shines. They sink into an interlude of funky percussion and simmering electronica. Mutated riffs ripple and distort for a short bit of savory disorientation. That pearl of chaos enlivens the whole track, as whammy bent fill notes ride with the song to its conclusion. Later, “Paradise” mines a different lode of dissonance, with hazy shards of feedback lurking under the staccato surface of the tune. The organic noise is welcome, but the way the tune blooms into open moments of calm is a callback to the band’s earlier work. That may be as much of a connection to the past that fans can get. The consolation is that, while dissociation and distraction blunt Wye Oak’s impact on Shriek, Wasner’s singing is sweeter than ever.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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