The last time I listened to a Wye Oak album, it was called The Knot and I liked exactly two songs on it. Obviously, I liked them enough to give Wye Oak another chance to impress me, so long as that chance required minimum financial risk on my part. Which is why, when NPR decided to add the Baltimore duo’s Civilian to their First Listen list, I carpe‘d the diem (sorry, my Latin’s a little rusty. Or nonexistent) and spent some time trying to figure out whether or not it’s the kind of album I’d like Wye Oak to make.
The jury’s still kind of out. In all honesty, I don’t really remember The Knot, but I do remember that I thought the two songs I liked would serve as a nice blueprint for any Wye Oak (Jenn Wasner on guitar and vocals, Andy Stack on basically everything else) music to follow. Whether or not that was the band’s explicit aim in recording Civilian (I doubt it), I certainly like it a lot better than I liked The Knot. In fact, I’d say Civilian sounds a lot like I wanted the last Besnard Lakes album to sound. There’s that quiet/loud dynamic that, let’s face it, a lot of indie bands use (thanks, the Pixies. Wye Oak’s “Holy Holy” even features a guitar riff that is a very close cousin to the Pixies song “Dead”), but Civilian builds to much more interesting climaxes than The Knot did.
The lyrics are often unclear, but the mood of the record is unmistakable. Like a lot of other indie bands, Wye Oak seems preoccupied with alienation (thanks, Radiohead). These two are from Baltimore, remember, so a thematically dark record makes a good deal of sense, as does opening the album with a song called “Two Small Deaths.” I like Wasner’s voice well enough on its own but better enough with the layered harmonies that show up on virtually every track. If memory serves, this was not the case on The Knot.
But here’s the thing: NPR’s First Listen has been a real money saver for me. If I listen to an album, say, a dozen times before its release date and I want to keep listening to it, I will purchase that album. If I listen to an album a dozen times and still can’t bring myself to shell out some dollars for it, it doesn’t mean I dislike that album; it means I just don’t like it enough to pay for it (hey, remember when people were all pissed about the downloading and they assumed that people would pay for the stuff they pirated if they couldn’t get it for free? I’m sure glad we as a society stopped reasoning so poorly. Right?). Civilian has its great moments – “Holy Holy” is really fucking awesome, for instance. But the album has not convinced me to buy it yet, despite its many improvements over its predecessor.
I’ve noticed, over the last four trips through Civilian (I like to get my zero dollars’ worth when I use First Listen, which everyone should use. And hey, while I’m doing the parenthetical rant thing [I’ve been doing that a lot lately – oh shit, double parentheses! What does it mean?], don’t you think having non-profit media is pretty cool? And don’t you think the Republican-led House of Gerrymandered Districts is kind of skirting the thornier budget issues by going after political targets instead of expensive ones? Here’s an Official Bollocks! Fact: NPR talks about, plays the music of, and interviews Tom Waits more than any other radio station on the planet. On that basis alone, it is worth saving), I’ve noticed that I like it best when I’m not completely focused on it. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but that’s because it is a backhanded compliment.
Wye Oak employs the same dynamics and themes that a lot of indie bands do and, while they seem to be getting better and better at it, Civilian still seems to operate at a sort of low-level, monotonous hum, from which moments of almost staggering beauty sometimes emerge (that’s a real compliment, from the bottom of my icy cold heart). So it seems to work best for me when I’m doing something else and can then have my attention drawn back to the album by songs like “Holy Holy” and the title track. Although, as I make my way through Civilian for the nth time, those two songs, “Hot As Day,” and “Doubt,” the obvious Beach House homage that closes the album, are the only ones that seem to hold my attention for any length of time. But that’s definitely a step in the right direction – on their last full-length, Wye Oak managed to produce only two songs that I thought were unimpeachably awesome (“Tattoo” and “I Want for Nothing”). This time out, they’ve doubled the goodness.
If I could own Civilian for about five bucks, I’d buy it today. According to my best research, that’s impossible. But I can own the six songs of theirs that I like for about a dollar apiece, and that proposition is somewhat enticing. As loath as I am (correct usage for the win, eh, Zac?) to use the phrase “market-based approach,” that’s essentially what I’m taking toward Wye Oak. I like to reward bands I like for making music I like (I’m basically tithed to the Hold Steady for any of their albums and shows that come within my greedy little grasp) and usually that occurs in the form of albums or concert tickets purchased. There’s no way I’m gonna see Wye Oak live because I feel like it would be eerily similar to the time I saw Beach House live. Though I have a positive view of the shared characteristics of both bands, Beach House bored me nearly to sleep in concert and I have a feeling Wye Oak would do the same. But if I give Wye Oak money only for the songs I like, perhaps I can create some small demand for an album full of songs as consistently rewarding as “Holy Holy.” Of course, that probably won’t happen because the thing all the free-market fanboys don’t like to mention is that the market doesn’t really give a shit about you (or anybody or anything else but money, which is why taking a “market-based approach” to things like the environment is a good way to make me want to cock-punch you until your hair changes color).