Baltimorean duo Wye Oak, comprised of guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner and drummer/vocalist Andy Stack, craft their most nuanced music to date on Civilian, their third LP. That’s not to say that the band doesn’t thunder with abandon in places, such as the splashes of distortion and vigorous guitar crescendos on “Holy Holy” and “Dog Eyes.” But elsewhere, as on opener “Two Small Deaths,” there is a subtle incorporation of ambient sounds, high, ethereal vocals, and a more layered arranging touch at work.
While Wye Oak has long been in the “indie rock” bin, Civilian complicates this designation by adding a strong influence of folk music to the mix. One can hear it in the gently strummed acoustic guitars that introduce and populate many of the songs, even those that eventually swell and swoon in a more elaborate and electrified ambience. For example, there’s a rustic quality on the title track’s vocal that reminds one of a folk ballad. That said, rock eventually asserts itself: acoustic instruments give way to a wall of electric guitars, including a shredding solo from Wasner reminiscent of Freedom-era Neil Young. Elsewhere, rock and folk are simultaneously juxtaposed, as on “Hot as Day,” where mathy syncopated rhythms underpin a crooning vocal.
On the beautiful duet “The Altar,” one can’t help but adjust their perceptions of Wye Oak to encompass a wider spectrum of styles than the indie rock template that previously dominated their sound; the strands of alt-folk commingling with indie guitars and even some synth-pop underpinnings. It’s a microcosm of the signature achievement of Civilian: expanding Wye Oak’s reach while remaining true to the essence of the band’s music making.