Artist of the Week: Wye Oak

The mid-00’s were a strange time to live in Baltimore. Once a metropolis in decline, “Charm City” witnessed a sudden infusion of artists and hipsters, throngs of insanely creative (creatively insane?) kids who were willing to live in converted warehouses and brave the streets that inspired The Wire. The arrival of Wham City provided the real catalyst; with Dan Deacon as de facto figurehead, this art collective gave Baltimore hipster kids a much-needed rallying point. Before we knew it, photos of Deacon’s manic shows were gracing the pages of Rolling Stone, with Baltimore being called out as 2008’s “Best Scene.” Something big was happening.

But while it felt exciting to be at the epicenter of something new, it could also border on overwhelming at times. So many grungy kids in bizarre neon color combinations, so many illegal warehouse shows in sketchy locations, and most of all, so much 8-bit insanity. Guitars were passé and cheap synths were in… everyone wanted a piece of the Nintendo-on-cocaine action. In the midst of all this madness, it was easy to forget that bands used to operate with just guitars, bass, drums, and maybe some keyboards. An amplifier? What? Oh, that’s the thing you plug your oscillator rig into, right?

So it was kind of a relief when I discovered Wye Oak. Or rather, I discovered Monarch, the original name of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner’s musical collaboration. With Andy on drums/keyboard and Jenn on guitar/vocals, the pair has a perfect dynamic that results in a surprisingly large sound. Their first album, If Children, was an impressive mission statement, threading together strands of drowsy folk and expansive shoegaze into an engaging musical tapestry. It’s no surprise that venerated indie label Merge Records picked them up, and now they’ve returned with The Knot.

From the opening notes of slow-burning intro “Milk And Honey,” it’s clear we’re firmly in Wye Oak territory. A funereal marching beat chugs along under Stack and Wasner’s soothing vocal harmonies, as somber piano and droning guitar/strings fill out the soundscape. But don’t be fooled; this is no laid-back album. The wordless chorus of “For Prayer” is dramatic and stunning, with Wasner’s guitar roaring cathartically over pedal steel and Stack’s pounding drums.

The Knot is a terrific album, but the real ace here is Wasner’s voice. Her talent was obscured slightly by If Children’s double-tracked vocals, but The Knot truly lets her shine. A versatile singer, she has the ability to sound weary beyond her years or light as a feather. Case in point: Wasner’s performance on the gorgeously sad “Mary Is Mary,” her voice curling around the words with a movingly delicate lilt. Or the anthemic “Tattoo,” with its soaring triple-tracked vocal harmonies. Beautiful stuff.

But hey, don’t just settle for the album experience. Make sure to catch these guys live; for only two people, they make a whole lot of sound. Tour dates below:

Aug. 12th – Bowery Ballroom – New York, NY
Aug. 13th – The Middle East – Boston, MA
Aug. 14th – North Star Bar – Philadelphia, PA

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– Matt Diamond


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