Wye Oak employs two dynamics: “quiet” and “loud” and the former must always precede the latter in every song. It’s not the only thing that torpedoes their new album, Wye Oak into an abyss of tedium, but it’s a big factor.
The thing is, on paper, this band should work. Wye Oak employs the same shimmering guitars and crashing cymbals of, say, Band of Horses, and adds a strong female vocalist (Jenn Wasner) to the mix. The Knot, Wye Oak’s new album, should be right up my alley. But up my alley it certainly ain’t. Why? Because it’s goddamn boring. Even at ten paltry tracks, The Knot is underwhelming with a capital “uh”. For one thing, Wasner’s voice is too far down in the mix and the musicians don’t have the versatility of the very capable dudes who back up Ben Bridwell in Band of Horses (who are, it should be pointed out, astonishing live. I have seen them live four times in the past three years, a mark only shared by my beloved Hold Steady, and both bands are great every time). For another thing, The Knot opens with three of its worst tracks so, by the time you make it to the comparatively uptempo “Siamese” (which isn’t great, but also isn’t bad), you’re already bored out of your skull.
The Knot is, I think, the result of thinking only a few things can be musically beautiful within an “indie” context (whatever that means)- namely, soft vocals, shimmering guitars, and crashing cymbals. This is sniveling indie kid thinking at its worst, the kind of plodding musicianship that will land your songs on the soundtrack to a mumblecore movie faster than you can say, “But I liked Garden State.” If Tom Waits has taught us anything (and he has, goddammit!), it’s that there is plenty of beauty to be found in yelling at the top of your lungs or beating a bass drum with a 2 x 4 or in just about everything else he does, really. But a lot of indie bands seem to fear sounding too ugly, even though a lot of them also want to sound broken-hearted and deep. This is, I’m guessing, one of the reasons Modest Mouse’s No One’s First and You’re Next makes me so fucking happy (as I write this, I nearly have to physically restrain myself from turning off this soporific-ass Wye Oak album and putting on that one). Any guy with a sweater and an acoustic guitar can mumble senstive stuff into his laptop and be an indie darling (are you reading this, Cass McCombs?), but I think it takes more fortitude (and more honesty – let’s face it, kids, life isn’t always so fucking pretty) to go for broke and try to make something good out of all the bad shit. Some might point out that Jenn Wasner and company are trying to do that on The Knot, perhaps citing the extremely long “Mary is Mary,” where Wasner moans, “What has she got that I haven’t got?” Your point, whoever you are, is taken, but mine is also this: Wasner, who shouldn’t bore me, is boring me to death all over The Knot. “Mary is Mary” would be a gorgeous song if it was four minutes shorter. I’m not exaggerating there, either. The damn thing is nearly 8 minutes long for no reason. None. I can get better sadness in less time out of Shannon McArdle (she of the now-and-forever defunct Mendoza Line. Nothing breaks up a band quite like divorce) and I don’t have wade through repetitive drum beats and meandering bass lines. McArdle is, rates about two to four times better than Wasner for melancholic efficiency.
There is one moment of utter beauty on The Knot and, curmudgeon though I am, I am not going to leave it out of this review. Buried alive, seven tracks into this cumbersome bastard of a record, is “Tattoo.” This song, to me, represents something that Wye Oak could and should be doing a lot more – namely, rocking out a bit and having badass vocal harmonies. If you heard “Tattoo” first, you’d be very excited to invest in The Knot only to be sorely disappointed when you actually put the album on.
“Tattoo” is a musical blessing for Wye Oak but it also makes me hate the album a little more – if they’re capable of making music like “Tattoo”, what the fuck are they doing making music like “For Prayer” and “Take It In”? I’d be remiss in my duty as a musical grump if I didn’t point out that those two songs are so plodding and dull that I can’t tell them apart without scanning the track list. “Tattoo” is followed by the only other honestly good track on The Knot, “I Want for Nothing.” I want for something – I want for Wye Oak to go home, listen to “Tattoo” and “I Want for Nothing” and then make a whole album of that. As soon as possible, please and thank you.
Because here’s another thing that damns this record – Wye Oak has the potential to be a truly gorgeous band. But I don’t put albums on to listen to potential – I’ve gotta listen to what’s actually recorded and most of what’s actually recorded on The Knot is annoyingly dull, overlong, and dynamically retarded. “Tattoo” and “I Want for Nothing” (thankfully, these two songs appear back to back and they really are great) show that Wye Oak can make astounding music and the other eight tracks suggest that they are mostly inclined not to.
The last nail in The Knot‘s coffin, for me, is the fact that I find myself in agreement with a Pitchfork review. The Pitchfork reviewer said all the things I’ve said about The Knot meaning that, on top of having spent time listening to an infuriatingly dull album, I find myself having to admit that Pitchfork was right about something. Dammit. Oh well: what are the odds that will happen again?