The third full-length album of Baltimore duo Wye Oak is titled Civilian, a name that completely characterizes its sound. Though the album is more rock-minded than the group’s 2009 release, The Knot, it stays under control, civil even, maintaining a sense of mystery and warmth.
Civilian’s sound is round, with each component blending into the other rather than one dominating the rest. Jenn Wasner’s vocals are hollow and not heavily enunciated, usually to the point of being incoherent, but still beautiful, as she creates her own melodic line that complements the instrumentation behind her. Given how mellow Wasner’s vocals are, it would be easy to say that this is a relaxing album, but that’s not completely true. The music definitely gives a feeling of relaxation, but it also has a haunting quality that doesn’t allow for complete comfort. Instead, the listener is constantly wondering whether the duo will stay with the same themes and patterns throughout a track, or if it will throw in some unexpected changes. The latter often prevails.
In “Plains,” the drums and guitar set a steady beat, which the vocals mimic, then culminate in an unanticipated burst of sound that breaks down before falling back into the original pattern. But on “Hot As Day,” Wasner and Andy Stack continue with just one idea throughout the song. This doesn’t mean that the track is lacking, but rather it creates a “can’t get enough” feeling, which compels you to keep listening.
It’s difficult to decipher exactly what instruments are being used—other than the unmistakable guitars, pianos and drums—considering everything is mixed together so that it blends as one rather than a bunch of separate pieces. The vocals are intertwined as well, putting them on the same level as the backing instrumentation. This equal treatment suggests neither vocals nor instruments are the stars of the show and that the music needs to be heard as a whole to get the full experience.
There’s a feeling of hope throughout the album, even when Wasner sounds as though she is down or distraught. The underlying instrumentation subtly moves the work forward with a bright jangly guitar and soft percussion, while the vocals add a brightness that keeps the music from wallowing. The balance is well done, but it feels a little too calculated at times with everything leveled out and nothing overdone. But with so much subtlety in this album, listeners will likely enjoy the fine thrill of music that does not dictate how you should respond to it and leaves room for a variety of emotional responses.