Before Baltimore duo Wye Oak started work on Shriek, they admitted that the guitar textures that earned them a top spot in the indie-folk kingdom became a sonically confining cage. Lead singer/bassist Jenn Wasner has even referred to the guitar as “baggage” in several interviews between their extensive Civilian tour and the release of this new album. Their solution? Go six-string cold turkey. You won’t hear a single reverb-drenched strum or acoustic rattle on Shriek. Instead you’ll be treated to lush landscapes of interweaving synth lines and technical drum patterns that show off Wye Oak’s pop-proficiency more than ever before.
Although a significant aspect of their sound has always been Wasner’s gypsy queen-like vocals, the lack of guitar-driven instrumental passages allows her to further utilize her voice. Perhaps carrying over some tricks from her synthed-up, retro Top 40 side project Dungeonesse, she moves from soulful alto to harrowing falsetto without a moment’s hesitation. The album’s twinkling title track highlights Wasner’s new vocal stylings by allowing her various runs into the upper register to command attention in the verses before settling back into the flow of one of the album’s catchiest choruses.
Another tool in the Wye Oak belt that’s kept them ahead of the curve is Andy Stack’s subtly brilliant drumming. Assuming both drum and keyboard duties during performances, he’s always made sure his one drumming hand was compensating for flash with hard hitting and texturally interesting beats. On Shriek though, his rhythms take on a level of repetitive syncopation that is both technically sound and complimentary to the album’s more delicate compositions. On Glory, the accents that he and Wasner’s bassline set create a desperate, pseudo-disco stomp that proves that repetition doesn’t always signal a lack of invention. Lead single The Tower is another successful exercise in complementation. Chopping synth chords, wiry violin attacks and an aggressive bass lick all get their moment in the spotlight, while Slack’s beat keeps the track anxiously grounded.
What’s most interesting about Shriek though is the proof that old habits die hard. Paradise may have a much more dance-oriented composition than anything on Civilian, but the tom-heavy beat and background distortion would have slotted in nicely on that previous release. Additionally, the atmospheric territory that Wye Oak began to traverse on Civilian re-appears in tracks like I Know the Law, which is shrouded in a lavish, dream-pop aura. This dynamic-duo may have shaken off the six-string shackles that constrained them, but the amount of time and energy that was put into all those previous records has left them with a certain trademark sound that refuses to be ignored. And that’s a good thing, because it would be a shame to ignore the craftsmanship of Wye Oak’s back catalogue. Shriek is a refreshing dive into the ambiguous depths of the indie-pop pool, made possible by two musicians who have shown great conviction in revamping their sound without ditching the fundamentals that have made them such a powerhouse.