Wye Oak hit a high point with their third album, Civilian, which was released in 2011 and gathered a lot of affection. It appealed very widely, mixing acoustic Americana, shoegazing guitars, Low and Yo La Tengo dynamics, and a tuneful charm of its own. It was a very appealing mix, and the sound of a band finding a place and relaxing into its groove. However, Wye Oak are not the kind of band to stick to the straight path, and they have changed their approach and upped their game for their much anticipated follow-up album.
The opening notes of Shriek are picked out on a jazzed-up synthesiser and suggest a radical change of direction. While further listening confirms that Wye Oak have swapped the acoustic guitar for electric bass and added '80s revival synth, the basic components are unchanged. Their sound comes from just two people – Jenn Wasner who sings and plays guitar – and bass on Shriek, and Andy Stack on keyboards and drums, which he plays simultaneously. Together they make a complex, multi-layered sound which underpins some irresistibly poppy tunes.
The first half of the album also contains its best tracks. ‘Before’, floating on startled, staccato keys, merges dreams and reality. Title track ‘Shriek’ is a tour-de-force; from the cawing of crows that heralds a bustling keyboard melody, to the offbeat drums, it is a frantic carnival of sounds. Wasner’s vocals are deliciously peculiar, her vowels stretched and drawn tight over the squirming synths. The lyrics, addressed to a lover, are stilted like an android attempting to understand human relations, with a mysterious chorus that proclaims “When I see at will, I will/ I know I know I feel no information/ Come follow how it seems in pleasant dreams”. Wasner’s pronunciation of “pleasant” is ridiculously mannered and oddly compelling.
If ‘Shriek’ has strange, addictive qualities ‘The Tower’ goes one better, with a melody that arrives unbidden and will not go away, and a vast, rumbling bass synth line that tips the track towards epic balladeering territory. If there is a hint of Fleetwood Mac about both the unrestrained, crashing, bass-driven keyboards and the violin thrown in for good measure, it is hard to hold it against Wye Oak. The fairytale lyrics also suggest that this is probably not to be taken too seriously, but just enjoyed.
Shriek peaks early with ‘Glory’, which has a tremulous keyboard squawks under a towering, tempestuous bass line. Stack delivers an effects solo worthy of Tangerine Dream – late Tangerine Dream – and Wasner throws herself at the vocals with breathless gusto. It sounds as though she’s describing a Salvador Dalí painting, “Until the heat of day is seared / I watch the clock as it turns backwards / I see the water on the hills”.
It is hard to keep the pace up for a full ten tracks, and the later songs that stand out are those that ease off the throttle. ‘School of Eyes’ is calm, relatively, with Stack’s keyboards threatening to explode but managing to hold off while Wasner sings with the purity of Franҫoise Hardy. ‘I Know the Law’ is bluesy and reflective, closer than any other track to the style of Civilian. The final track, ‘Logic of Color’, treads a fine line between absurd lyrics - “The logic of color / the color of your skin / the color of your eyes” – even more absurd keyboards, and a charm that somehow lets them get away with it.
Wye Oak have produced an album that is both irresistible and confounding, mixing unforgettable tunes with cheerful self-indulgence. Their creativity is fiercely focussed, to the extent that Wasner and Stack appeared to have actually transported themselves back to 1984. However, Shriek is no ventriloquist act but an album that will have listeners coming back again and again for just one more listen.
Shriek is available from iTunes (here).