Release Date: April 29, 2014
Label: Merge Records
On Wye Oak‘s first three albums, the indie rock duo excelled at writing catchy guitar numbers that showcased its fondness for distortion and soaring vocals, compliments of lead singer Jenn Wasner. On 2011’s breakout Civilian, the combination earned them heaps of critical praise, national TV spots, and landed them on tours with acts like the Decemberists and Dirty Projectors. But they’ve done a risky thing on Shriek: The guitars are gone, and in their place is a synth-pop sound that echoes great ’80s pop. A lot of bands try this, but often complicate things by either over-producing or trying to stuff too much sound in. Wye Oak pull it off.
Shriek sounds like the work of a reinvigorated band, right from the album’s sweeping opener, “Before,” which establishes that Wye Oak want to be something more than just another rock band competing with rock guitars. Songs like pulsating single “The Tower” and “Despicable Animal” find the group exploring mid-tempo twinkles, with subtle atmospheric textures that plugged-in six-strings would typically drown out. Wasner mostly muses on relationships, her lyrics brimming with earthy metaphors that probably have a deeper meaning, but who knows. Her stories are obtuse, abstract thoughts that read like stream-of-conscience rants spilling out over sound.
But the loudest statement made by Shriek isn’t the band’s newfound synth love or cryptic lyrics; lots of bands change course over their careers, some for better, some for worse. On Shriek, it’s Wasner’s vocals that steal the show: assertive, confident, and best exemplified on one of the standout tracks, the bass-driven “Glory.” Throughout the album, she shifts from restrained cool to soaring sentimentalism in mere seconds; this dynamic is something that Civilian possessed, but Shriek masters. It’s the most captivating aspect of Wye Oak, placing Wasner in the conversation alongside St. Vincent, Neko Case, and Grimes as one of the premiere voices in indie-rock.