Wye Oak have always been the rock-duo equivalent of Kate Bush, The National, or Joanna Newsom, writing peculiarly synth-friendly songs that take on complicated, veiled, existential subject matter bigger than any one individual. Typically, their songs are recognizable in their sense of combustibility — ratcheting up tension or a sense of despair until the song bursts into something resembling rebellious glory — with singer/ bassist/guitarist/ keyboardist Jenn Wasner pulling out some vicious solo while Andy Stack, the drummer and synth player, gives propulsive charge to the break in form. In between records and touring, Wasner has involved herself in more pop-centric projects, from the pure dance joy of the great Dungeonesse, to her own solo, ‘80s-centric work under the moniker of Flock of Dimes. On Wye Oak’s latest, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, the album seems to be reconciling its identity as the middle ground between Wasner’s desire to be a rock performer, and her interest in synthetic pop.
While the lyrics remain as inscrutable as ever in their discussions of love, hope, longing, and existence, the music finds new dimensions in its playfulness and embracing of Wasner’s voice, which has previously often been slightly buried in the mix. In the first few songs, like “The Instrument” and the title-track, her voice is uniquely low in the register, removing some of the buoyancy that characterizes her singing, but making it no less smooth in that flattening out. “Lifer” is the only real showcase of Wasner’s signature vocal delivery, with her airy, slightly husky alto floating above the song effortlessly. From there on out, there’s a great deal of shapeshifting that occurs, as her voice takes on a pop quality on “It Was Not Natural,” singing about human nature in a vocal style and on an arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sara Bareilles, Norah Jones, or Kacey Musgraves album. On the 90-second “My Signal,” Wasner showcases her incredible voice in a way that’s new, harkening back, oddly, to the stunning burlesque singers of the Weimar republic. With Wasner’s voice up-front in the mix of each track, this is the first Wye Oak record that displays just how versatile and nuanced she can be.
Musically, the band has traded in their signature combustibility for more ambitious soundscapes that rely on the versatility of synthesizers to shape the sound they want. Relying heavily on warmer sounds, tracks like “The Instrument,” “Say Hello,” and “Over and Over” flit between inviting indie rock, ‘80s newwave, and, oddly, early-folk inspired pop. “Over and Over” in particular relies on a large, plodding, near-square dancing beat to drive the head-bopping bliss of its mid-‘90s videogame-esque music while Wasner sings chirpily and eerily above it. By embracing these new sounds (truly, “Symmetry” is the only track that resembles older Wye Oak tracks), Wye Oak emerge as a band capable of incredible surprise as they shift away from murky indie rock to something harder to define. In embracing simpler, but no less sophisticated arrangements, Wasner and Stack have found new platforms for their patent mix of clever arrangements and philosophical pondering.
However, all of this newfound play and confidence also raises a question: where does Flock of Dimes end and Wye Oak begin? It’s hard not to listen to the new record and not think of Wasner’s solo album, which traffics more in ‘80s nostalgia than this record, but is equally as thoughtful about the vocal delivery, synthetic arrangements, and lyrics. Right now, the small hints of murkiness, as well as how strongly Stack’s playing seems to bolster Wasner as a singer, are the only true signs of the separation. By the next record, it’s likely that the separation between the two will become cleaner, even if the synths Wasner is so fond of drive that direction.
As always, Wye Oak have managed to release a cohesive album bursting with nuance, quirky detail (marimbas on one track, eerily looped vocals on another), and substance. Over the last decade plus, the band has managed to become everything from the most formidable duo in indie rock, to the most ambitious band using nostalgia as a platform with which to grow something new. With The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, they’ve yet again performed alchemy and released something undeniably brilliant.