Monday, July 27, 2009

Wye Oak--The Knot

Recently, Baltimore, MD has gone through an interesting artistic reappraisal: while The Wire peeked under the carpet at the industrial city's vast criminal underworld, a kaleidoscopic DIY music aesthetic has taken root, perhaps to combat Baltimore's outwardly bleak reputation. Electro and dance music has put this town on the map, thanks to the national success of Animal Collective, Dan Deacon, and Ponytail. Wye Oak certainly don't fit into this scene, but they are nonetheless helping to establish Baltimore as an inherently artistic space.

The guy-girl duo of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner create beautiful songs that precisely feed off their grim surroundings. These are simple, folk-inspired sketches that are dressed to the nines in Stack's ethereal production and given emotional depth by Wasner's heavy croon. Slices of pedal steel guitar pop up from time to time, adding somber touches to the engaging music. Stack is also a hell of a drummer, capable of quick dynamic shifts and inventive rhythms that shapeshift with the waves of guitars, like on "Talking About Money." Wye Oak capture a range of feelings: opening with the minimalist plodding of "Milk And Honey," the listener is drawn in closer by the wide-open country-soul of "For Prayer," the grungy blues squall of "Take It In," and the moody orchestral pop of "Siamese." Oftentimes, the album is awash with distorted guitar and reverb, but on "That I Do," Stack pulls back the layers in between the beats, creating brief stabs of silence that are especially powerful on such a modern-sounding record. On "Mary Is Mary," Wasner sketches out a tale of heartbreak and remorse as the band glacially builds up a feedback-driven crescendo, allowing Wasner to strongly but wearily proclaim “But what good does she have/ That I haven’t got?” It's a moment of naked emotional resignation, and it's devastating in both its simplicity and its honesty. And remember, The Knot is only their second album--usually, a release this fully realized and mature doesn't come until much later in a band's career.

The album is out on Merge Records, which is celebrating its twentieth birthday. The label that brought us iconic acts like the Arcade Fire, Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Magnetic Fields, and M. Ward has done it again with Wye Oak. This is Americana for a new generation--gritty, dark, but with humanistic touches that keep you returning for more.

Support the artist. Buy it here.

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