So many paradoxes in such a small package. The third album from Baltimore indie-rock duo Wye Oak strips away some of the extra instrumental touches (pedal steel, strings) that highlighted 2009’s The Knot, leaving just Jenn Wasner’s voice and guitar and Andy Stack’s drums and keys and backing vocals, and yet it boasts a more sumptuous sound. They mostly avoid the soft-loud gotcha that has made for some of the more powerful moments in their discography to date, and yet Civilian is both quieter and louder-seeming than its predecessors—the six-string clangor that serves as the central hook to “Holy Holy” wouldn’t sound out of place on a vintage Sonic Youth LP. And while its songs, on the surface at least, hold their cards closer than the moments of swooning abandon and wry emotion on The Knot, it seems like a more accessible album. Maybe that’s down to what hasn’t changed at all: Wye Oak’s unerring way with a melody and Wasner’s steady growth as a songwriter.
It’s worth pointing out that these melodies work so well because of the arrangements and production that set them off, and that the adroit two-piece had help mixing the album from indie super-producer John Congleton. Wasner’s melancholy melody and doubled harmonies make “The Altar” sing and sigh, but Stack’s pulsing keyboard, a touch of draggy echo on the snare, and a bit of synthetic headspace around the music heighten the effect. With little more than its essential instrumental ingredients, the duo creates an outsized widescreen effect on “Hot as Day.” Even the closing ballad “Doubt” somehow sounds nowhere near as sonically naked as sonorous vocals and guitar, which is all it is.
The upshot is that these songs feel perhaps a little more initially opaque than the more heart-meets-sleeve highlights of The Knot. That said, you don’t have to parse the lyrics of “Dog Eyes” to feel the seismic shift between the measured verses and the blaring chords of the chorus. And the lyrics that peek through the delicate guitar line and the gaps in the rising urgency of the title track—“I wanted to love you like my mother’s mother’s mothers did”—hint that at depths to explore here in the coming weeks/months/years.