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Tuesday, 13 May 2014 |
There's nothing wrong with Wye Oak's fourth album Shriek. Not once does the album sound overlong, uninteresting or derivative. In fact, singer/bassist Jenn Wasner is ethereal when she needs to be, and Andy Stark's drum/keyboard combo is well complementary of Wasner's voice and presence. For Wye Oak fans though, this latest offering may be a culture shock: by putting it in the context of the Wye Oak oeuvre, Shriek sounds less a piercing triumph and more like a peep lacking the same punch from previous albums.
And that's because between Wye Oak's excellent third LP Civilian in 2011 and this year's strong effort there is a three year excavation. It's a gaping hole most notably filled by Wasner's side project Dungeonesse, a music act that flittered with the ne plus ultra of 90s R&B. In getting into a Dungeonesse headspace, Wasner's dirty fingerprints can be found all over today's Wye Oak, one of more bouncy bass-driven/synth-driven music and away from yesterday's instrument make-up of walls of guitar.
But while trading the guitar for the bass has changed the sound of the music itself, the tense tone of catharsis on Shriek remains par for the course to their other cleansing albums. On opening track 'Before', the analogue beeps of a floating synth and repetitive bass create a rebirthing of Wasner as key songwriter from her past self. Her voice ranges from divine, warbling to husky as if waking up and forgetting what just happened but still in possession of the same identity: "I tell you stories / but truth be told / I can't remember / what came before".
Whether Wasner intended to consciously or otherwise, that concept of being reborn but holding onto parts of a haunted past is explored thoroughly across a number of Shriek's tracks to varying successes. Perhaps the most subtle instance of this can be found on first single 'The Tower' where the bassline slows down to a plodding pace, and Wasner's voice travels down a digital line to rid it of fidelity and fill it with distance. Halfway through, her bass goes firey and volcanic, a distorted and ugly version of before, with Wasner again gliding in to create a smoky atmosphere. It's synthy disco indeed but there's a menacing undertone there.
Perhaps exploring that concept to breaking point, 'Glory' almost throws away Wye Oak's previous skin in how fun and upbeat it is. At points 'Glory' harnesses the Haim-esque bounciness but reduces the in-your-face factor, leaving a more suitable comparison to Fleetwood Mac in its understated melody. The high falsetto chorus springs to life and, again, halfway through the track releases its tension in a stringy yet sparse guitar solo. Like the best tracks on Wye Oak's previous album The Knot, this track inspires direction from an unexpected place. Up there alongside it is 'School Of Eyes' which melds an R&B bass, light drumming and psychedelic synths into one, before effectively breaking the synths into an incongruent solo after the best chorus on the album -- maybe even the best chorus written by Wye Oak ever.
However, there are too many examples that don't quite go far enough in either the new Wye Oak or old Wye Oak direction. For instance, 'Sick Talk' is a track without a distinct trajectory despite it laying on gorgeous parts in spades; 'Paradise' has jungle drumming and a distorted guitar wall to bring a sense of urgency that just peters out even though Wasner's vocals are beautiful yet retributive; and 'I Know The Law' not going full blown and instead disappointing with its build-up that releases too quickly to end the song way before it tries to find peace in the chaos and ride it out. These tracks have their redeeming factors too but often it feels Wasner can't commit to the leap, due to a lack of confidence or just resulting in a loss of heart.
But that brings me back to my main point: Shriek is far from a bad album -- actually, get into this album, listen from start to finish. Be sure to hold your breath in anticipation of the other shoe to release the tension and drop, be sure to get lost in the textures of Wasner's bruising warble. But once you're done, chuck on previous albums The Knot or Civilian and really find where Wye Oak's slowcore power lies in today's indie music landscape.
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