Wye Oak's mature 'Civilian'

Baltimore's indie folk duo celebrates the release of new album

  • "Civilian" is the new album from Baltimore indie rock duo Wye Oak.
"Civilian" is the new album from Baltimore indie… (Handout photo, Baltimore…)
April 14, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Reading the commentary on Wye Oak's last album, "The Knot," and the new one, "Civilian," you might think there's little difference between the two.

Adjectives like lush, evocative and brooding are alternatively used to describe them.

But Jenn Wasner, the duo's vocalist and guitarist, says the new album is different in several respects, and especially in one: It's just better. With "The Knot," she and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack overplayed the benefits of brand-new label representation, she says.

"When all options are available to you, it's hard to say no," she says.

Not that critics noticed. The album received mainly positive notices. But for "Civilian," a poignant album that's inspired by the end of one of Wasner's relationships, they purged the excess that she says bogged down the last one.

They worked quickly, broke down the album to its basic elements and ended up with a piece that it is almost ascetic in its production.

"We're much happier with how 'Civilian' turned out," Wasner says. "It sounds complete and finished, but it doesn't sound overloaded." The band, on a promotional tour since the beginning of March, plays a homecoming show at 2640 Space on Saturday, right before departing on a string of festival dates.

Since its start five years ago, Wye Oak has typically seen its songs come together after a slow period of rehearsal outside the studio.

"Usually, we have songs that are worked over a long time. We have a lot of time to think about the arrangements before we go into the studio," Wasner says. "There's a lot of trial and error."

But after they were signed to Merge Records in 2008, the two had the time and resources to work out their ideas in the studio, a luxury they'd never had before.

With "The Knot," the first album for the label, they didn't rehearse as they had in the past. Wasner says they had less time to think about the arrangements before going into production. Instead, they took their time and experimented.

"We were excited to have options available to us after working sparsely for so long," Wasner says.

Stack also tracked the album little by little on his own, a technically complex task that added to the production time.

"Andy worked ridiculously hard on those mixes from 'The Knot,'" says Michael Freeland, who recorded "Civilian." "They sounded fantastic, but it was hard for them to do that all on their own."

The album took a month to record and another to mix, Wasner says. Though polished, it also ended up sounding self-indulgent at times; three of its songs clocked in at longer than five minutes. It's an assessment Wasner shares.

"We kept all options. We just piled it on because we could," she says. Its flaws taught them that "the stuff you leave out is as important as the stuff you leave in," Wasner says.

"Civilian" finds the duo revisiting some thematic hallmarks. Its 10 songs deal with co-dependence, unrequited love and, obliquely, with Wasner's own life.

Written a year ago, after the end of a long-term relationship, the title track sets the tone for the rest of the album.

"If 'The Knot' is about relationships with others, this one is about the relationship with myself, learning to be self-sufficient," she says.

"Civilian" sounds pared down and immediate, the result, Wasner says, of a strict screening process before they went into production.

"As a duo, one major thing we learned is that we have to figure out what the absolute essential components of song are." It's a difficult skill that they hadn't mastered until this album, she says.

"For as long as we've been doing this, we've just gotten to a point where we're comfortable doing that," she says.

Production on "Civilian" went quickly. Except for the title track, the other songs were written between last July and August.

"We went in with these songs very fresh and with very little time to overthink it," Wasner says. "We were aware to not let excitement get the better of us."

They also left the technical aspects of recording to Freeland and his brother, Chris, who run the Baltimore studio Beat Babies, which meant Wye Oak was in the studio for just a week.

Freeland says that approach worked to their advantage.

"There was more immediacy," he says. "Things could only be overthought so much."

For their new live show, the duo has added some components — like sampling — that they hadn't before. At 2640, they also plan on playing some songs from the "My Neighbor / My Creator" EP they released last year, which she says they weren't ready to play until now.

"It's very easy to surprise people with how loud you can be," she says. "The far harder thing is to be compellingly quiet and hopeful. As a two-piece, it's incredibly difficult to do. A song like 'My Creator,' we've never been able to pull off in the past."

That they now can is a sign the band has entered a new, mature phase.

erik.maza@baltsun.com

twitter.com/midnightsunblog

If you go

Wye Oak performs Saturday at 2640 Space, 2640 St. Paul St. Show begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets, at $12, are sold at missiontix.com.

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