Singing Into A Mirror, Darkly

Baltimore's Wye Oak Stays Melancholy, Gets Introspective On 'The Knot'

July 21, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,

For Baltimore indie rock duo Wye Oak, there's a disconnect between the music and the band itself.

Wye Oak's first record, If Children, was strikingly morbid. And the new album, The Knot, which is being released today by the acclaimed independent label Merge Records, has a depressing thread, too. After hearing both, the average listener might think singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/bassist Andy Stack never smile.

"It's funny because this is a pretty dark record, and I think it's starting to give the impression that we're really dark people and really macabre," Stack said. "That's totally not us at all."

In person, Stack and Wasner are both generally upbeat and eager to talk about their music, and, to a certain extent, their personal lives. They've been dating for a few years, and both play multiple instruments. Their music has been lauded by indie press across the country and played on college radio stations. And they share the same record label as Conor Oberst, Spoon and M. Ward. As a result, they're one of the brighter stars in Baltimore's burgeoning music scene.

Live, Wasner strums guitar and sings while Stack plays drums with his right hand and both feet and keyboard bass with his left hand. The CD release show for The Knot is tonight at the Ottobar.

From the audience, it's hard to imagine that such an expansive sound comes from only two people. Thankfully, Stack said, his handling of two instruments at once isn't seen as a gimmick, but a means to an end - if it's even noticed at all.

"Maybe that's because people aren't paying very close attention, but more to the point because the songs are coming from this direct, emotional place. I dont think we're the kind of band that is trying to wow anybody with technical prowess. We're just trying to present these songs. We could be juggling fire while we perform and it would still be direct songwriting."

Stack and Wasner started playing together under the name Monarch in 2006. They recorded and independently released If Children, before changing their name to Wye Oak (after the Eastern Shore tree), and signing to Merge Records last year. Merge re-released If Children, and Wye Oak toured nationally and internationally in support of it.

Though warmly received by critics, If Children was all over the place. It had everything from acoustic tracks to giant walls of guitar feedback. The Knot is a more cohesive record, with a realized sound and sharper focus, Stack said.

"There's still some hefty stylistic shifts, but not to the point where it doesn't feel like the same band anymore," Stack said. "I guess that's good."

The Knot has a plodding pace, a melancholy feel and some new instrumentation - namely, a pedal steel and even some horns. If Children looked at the outside world, Stack said. For The Knot, Stack and Wasner looked inward - their own relationship and the relationships around them.

On the track, "Siamese," Wasner sings, "'Cause if you leave / or I leave you / I lose my life / and lose you too. / So you couldn't scare me / if you tried / 'cause I'm ready / to die / tonight."

"We were writing about trying to make sense of our own minds and our own personal relationships," Stack said. "It's pretty easy to view some of these songs as purely romantic, but by and large they're meant to be of a wider scope than that."

The decision to name the record The Knot came early, Stack said. He and Wasner were drawn to the ambiguity knots have. They can symbolize marriage, strength, challenge, a sense of mystery and more. Stack and Wasner want listeners to decide what The Knot implies.

"We're not the kind of people who like to deal in absolutes," he said. "I think a lot of these songs have room to take different meanings, like the album title. That's the ground we like to tread."

CD release party tonight

Wye Oak's CD release show is at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. Oakley Hall will also perform. Doors open at 8 p.m., and the music starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8. Call 410-662-0069 or go to

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