The life of a professional musician is full of paradoxes, but the cruelest is this: Being happy doesn’t always result in good songs. Take, for example, Wye Oak: In 2011, the Baltimore indie-rock duo (frontwoman Jenn Wasner, multi-tasking drummer Andy Stack) released the masterful Civilian, an angsty wallop of simmering, psychedelic texture and electric guitar fervor. But in the wake of that breakthrough LP (and its endless cycle of promotion and touring), they grew bored with the mighty sounds they’d amassed.
To carry on, they needed to challenge themselves musically, to reboot with a fresh sonic palette. With their fourth album, Shriek, they’ve pulled a bold 180: swapping out Wasner’s earth-rattling guitar tones with throbbing basslines, milky synths and percussive loops; replacing emotional exorcisms with spaced-out reflection.
“The guiding force of this band from the get-go has been the strength of the songs themselves,” Wasner recently told Spin. “It’s never been about the guitar [...] People who like our band appreciate good songwriting; whether or not we pull this off rests on the fact whether the songs are good enough.”
She makes a damn good point. Even if Wye Oak had embraced polka instead of electro-pop, the quality of their songs is more important than their method. But Shriek, for all its intriguing new twists, still feels like it’s missing something—these songs are intellectually stimulating, but they’re harder to connect with on a visceral level.
“Before” opens the LP with the finest synthesis of Wye Oak’s new approach: Wasner explores the full range of her emotive alto, crooning sultrily over a static bass pulse and Stack’s fragmented drum samples. There isn’t a six-string within earshot, and none are needed—the track reaches their trademark level of catharsis, only in slow-motion.
Some tracks (the funky, hooky “Glory,” the shuffling “Schools of Eyes”) make full use of this newfound sonic landscape, emphasizing Wasner’s smoky voice and dexterity on the bass guitar. Other songs (“Sick Talk,” “Despicable Animal”) cloud their melodic and rhythmic potential with lifeless loops and bright synth-pads, favoring repetition over thrust. Ironically, Wasner sounds reinvigorated as a singer (“I Know the Law” is essentially a showcase for her soulful coo), but the stilted production often keeps her melodies at arm’s length.
Ultimately, Shriek is an admirable reinvention. Following their muse could very well lose them fans, but Wye Oak’s fearlessness is a rare commodity in our formulaic age. You have to admire their conviction, if not always their results.