It's a rare voice that can channel the maddening allure of Homer's sirens. Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner has one of those voices. On her island stage, she beckons those not bound to bar stools, foamy waves of distortion crashing around her and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack's ankles. Like the first pull off a cigarette, her smoky pipes give you a serious case of the spins.
"What happens when I play my songs isn't a put-on or an act, it's actually just the most straightforward, honest, genuine delivery I can muster," said Wasner via e-mail. "I can't really play these songs without being affected by them and going to a certain place in my brain, and I guess people sometimes notice that."
But there's nothing polite about a Wye Oak live show--Wasner and Stack drift alternately between smoldering intimacy and exploding walls of noise.
"I like defying people's expectations of what we're capable of," said Wasner. "Also, it was very important to both of us that we were able to be an adequately dynamic band. We didn't want to have to settle for being quiet all the time. Honestly, the really loud stuff is a pretty easy trick to pull off. It's being convincingly quiet and nuanced that is really difficult--and something we're still working on."
With Wye Oak's third full-length album, Civilian (Merge), the Baltimore indie shoegaze duo has struck a balance between blowing your hair back and making it stand on end.
"These songs are a bit more subtle and unfold more slowly and cautiously, I think," said Wasner. "We're comfortable enough as a band by now that we've come to rely less on quick tricks (bam! volume! surprise!) and are willing to let our songs be a bit more subtle."
One of those songs is the album opener, "Two Small Deaths," which builds from a field recording of ambient conversations into a twinkling, airy number evocative of fellow Baltimoreans Beach House. Other songs, like "Holy Holy," bust out of the gate at an accelerated clip, Stack's trash can-rattle drums and synth filling out the single-worthy jam.
And though her lyrics are frequently difficult to understand, Wasner weaves in a number of weighty themes on Civilian, which she sums up in the album's liner notes as "aloneness (the positive kind), loneliness (the horrible kind), moving on, and letting go (of people, places and things)."
"It was less a coming of age and more a coming of independence," noted Wasner. "I wrote the songs on this record during a time when I was really working to be a self-sufficient person, physically and emotionally, and less dependent on others for my own happiness."
The album's title track explores this maturation and longing for self-sufficiency with lyrics like: "I still keep my baby teeth / in the bedside table with my jewelry." The song begins with Wasner's delicately picked guitar, and soon Stack's drums and tambourine come galloping in--a la Mirah's "Cold Cold Water"--only to drown three-fourths of the way through in a river of squalling guitars. The drums come up for one last gasp of air before the track dies out. Though the song plunges fully into "bam! volume! surprise!" territory, it still highlights the band's blossoming songwriting skills.
"When we started playing in this band together four years ago, we had a lot to learn.
"In my mind, our first two records and the EP we made were practice for the record we just released," said Wasner. "I think we both feel more comfortable and confident now--as writers, as performers and as humans."
Wye Oak recorded and mixed their first two albums, If Children (2008) and The Knot (2009), themselves. For Civilian (2011), they brought on mixing engineer John Congleton, who has worked with such indie luminaries as St. Vincent and Shearwater. NPR streamed Civilian on its First Listen program before the album's March 8 release, describing it as "10 brooding songs about the mostly futile pursuit of comfort and connectedness."
"NPR has always been incredibly good to us," said Wasner. "Personally, I rarely buy music without knowing what I'm in for, so the First Listen series is the perfect way to provide that opportunity for many people who probably wouldn't hear the record otherwise."
Fresh off a wearying week at SXSW, Wye Oak will teeter between intimacy and thundering tumult at Flying M Coffeegarage in Nampa on Thursday, March 31.
"I wouldn't trade this lifestyle for anything," said Wasner. "There was a point at which I would not have been comfortable saying that. But I'm sure if I had spent the duration of the last four years sitting at home in Baltimore, I'd be clawing my eyes out by now."