Braver and more affecting than anything they've done to date, although it has noticeable flaws.
Wye Oak – Shriek
Shriek, the fourth full-length from Baltimore dream pop duo Wye Oak, represents a drastic change for a band that never needed one in the first place. Just a few years ago in 2011, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack were doing just fine for themselves composing delicate, wispy acoustic tunes with their third album, Civilian. This LP’s sound, although not entirely different from anything these two had done in the past, was tighter and more affecting than usual, and seemed to hint that Wye Oak would one day make a truly unforgettable indie folk record, something even better than a great meditative collection.
Turns out that prediction was wrong — well, only in part. Shriek is most certainly not an indie folk album or a meditative piece; however, it’s their sharpest and most direct album yet. Instead of using hushed acoustics and tranquil vocals to achieve dreamy eloquence, Wye Oak instead employs vivid synths and fluid bass, without even the slightest hint of guitar. As told to SPIN, Wasner’s decision to radically reform Wye Oak’s sound was a life or death situation for the act: “[While writing Shriek], there was all this weird baggage associated with the guitar for me, and I couldn’t get around that,” she grieved. “It was a block. I had to sidestep the block in order to be able to make anything.” And sidestep the block she did; in fact, she’s leapt over it. The novel sound Wasner and Stack convey on Shriek is braver and more affecting than anything they’ve done to date, although it’s a formula they have yet to perfect.
From the moment the warbly, disquieting synths of “Before” open the album, it’s obvious that Wye Oak is going for something different here. This song’s empathic vocal delivery and lush synth beds are fleshed out even more fully on the title track, which follows in sequence. Wasner’s breathy vocals and milky synths flood the music with anguish, as they do on Shriek‘s true slow-burner, “I Know the Law.” This tune would blend in near perfectly on Beach House’s masterpiece-to-date, 2010’s Teen Dream.
Actually, Wye Oak’s trajectory to date slightly mimics Beach House’s musical path. The latter act too started their career in lethargic, desolate dream pop (“Apple Orchard”, “Heart of Chambers”), eventually progressing to direct and unexpectedly heartwarming synthpop. It’s an interesting comparison because it suggests how far Wye Oak has come: just as Beach House’s more recent output, the most tactile and lively material in their catalog, has drawn significantly more acclaim than their early albums, so too should Shriek as compared to its predecessors. Songs like Beach House’s “Norway” and “Myth” find matches in Shriek‘s “Glory” and “The Tower”, respectively.
It’s no coincidence, then, that these two tracks are Shriek‘s strongest (but maybe it is a coincidence that these are the album’s two singles). Placed back to back early on in the album, they’re the most immediate moments present, and deviate a tad more obviously from Wye Oak’s past work than the rest of what’s here. Although the short ambient intro to “The Tower” could segue directly into a Civilian-style acoustic hymn, it instead swells into a massive strut of synthetic sparkle and slinky low notes. Wasner’s voice sounds unusually cold, an excellent match for the arhythmic synths defining the song. “Glory”, on the other hand, is pure warmth and ecstasy: percussive pounding, essentially the complete opposite of the ambience introducing “The Tower”, initiates this track. A thick bassline quickly appears, with snippets of synth warbles outlining the soundscape. The chorus of this track is arguably Shriek‘s most explosive: a surprisingly funky bassline and synths that almost feel like they’re hugging you envelop Wasner’s emotive, exasperated vocals.
If “Glory” isn’t the pinnacle of Shriek‘s outwardness, then this award goes to the track following it, “Sick Talk.” Synth crests outline this sweet, sugary tune, and eventually ascend to watery waves of creaminess during the song’s Friendly Fires-esque chorus. Although the breathiness of Wasner’s vocals makes her exact words somewhat difficult to understand here, this quality doesn’t stop them from sending chills up her listeners’ spines. Really, though, there aren’t too many songs on here where Wasner’s words are fully discernable, which is unfortunate since she may well be saying some incredibly affectionate, relatable things. Take, for example, “School of Eyes”: right before this song’s first chorus, Wasner says something along the lines of “my hand is mine/even when you hold it”, but the heft of her voice disguises her words too much to confirm this.
This problem with Wasner’s voice isn’t limited merely to “Sick Talk” and “School of Eyes.” “Paradise” and “Logic of Color” are particularly guilty of this sin, and of something even more troubling: these tunes simply aren’t as enjoyable as the songs comprising Shriek‘s first half. Indeed, Shriek is a frontloaded album, but that’s not to say the back half is completely flat. “Despicable Animal” is definitely interesting and almost psychedelic, and the uneasy bass of “Paradise” is impossible to track down elsewhere on the album.
Shriek expends its best moments rapidly, yet it somehow stands tall as Wye Oak’s finest accomplishment. If Wasner can learn to elucidate her vocals and enunciate her words, and both Wasner and Stack take steps to keep their formula engaging for all forty minutes of a typical album runtime, then they’ll certainly make the truly unforgettable record that’s suspected to lie within them. Until then, we’re left with a slew of blissful, sensitive songs that, despite the inevitable Beach House comparisons, probably could have come from no one else.