Monday, March 28, 2011

New Music Reviews: Wye Oak-Civilian, The Strokes-Angles

Wye Oak. Named after the former state tree in the state of Maryland. Also known as the "Quiet Giant" of trees. I can't think of a better way to describe this two piece band from Baltimore, Maryland whose music can at first be quiet, but grows mightily into giant proportions. After multiple listens to their third album "Civilian", there are certain strange bursts of energy, feedback, reverb that come at you from from a lot of different directions, but the undercurrent of feeling blue still keeps the main frame. It's an album that somehow embraces cold and desolate themes but yet in textures and atmosphere is very warm. It's a tightrope to walk, but for the most part, Wye Oak succeeds.

On the musical surface, comparisons can be made to Beach House in that both bands are two piece who use guitar, drums and keyboards to invoke a whole lot of emotion. But really, these two bands are polar opposites. While Beach House's "Teen Dream" soared to new heights in every song, "Civilian" takes the approach of dragging you down every opportunity. It feels like someone grabbing at your ankles in a deep lake and pulling you into the dark, murky waters around you. And There's no bottom in sight. Lead singer and exceptionally underrated guitarist, Jenn Wasner, croons in every song like Sarah MacLachlan on Quaaludes. It could be a tiresome formula, but the songs are way too smart and consistently good to matter. Like the album cover, your diving into desolation....feet first.

The album starts with the intimate "Two Small Deaths" centering on a jittery guitar line and later adds eerie keyboards to help heighten the cozy atmosphere. It leads into "The Altar" which jumps along on a simple keyboard lick, some great mid song guitar work, and Wasner's ethereal voice which by this point, already sounds resigned, like she's barely able to keep her head up to get the words out of her mouth. By the time "Holy, Holy" rolls out (my favorite song here as of now) there's no swimming out of this hole. Wasner sings "Holy, Holy, Holy, there is no other story" over Thurston Moore like guitar beaks and bleak atmospherics. Over three minutes into the song, it breaks into something huge and wonderful as Andy Stack's backbeat and Wasner's guitar take on a full assault as the song becomes fully realized. It's moments like this on "Civilian" that are few, but precious. Elsewhere, comparisons could be made to Pavement on "Dogs Eyes" in song structure, "Civilian", the title tack, is another winner as Stack shines again with percussion and Wasner's guitar comes in at the end with Neil Young Crazy Horse guitar licks and truthful lyrics "I wanted to give you everything, But I still stand in awe of superficial things...Civilian" and "Hot As Day" has an almost breezy feeling of hope rising through it. Perhaps the only real faults I can find is the two enders "We Were Wealth" and "Doubt" don't match the intensity and coziness of the rest of the "Civilian", but they are small faults.

If you're looking in to an excellent down trodden but extremely good batch of warm songs, "Civilian" delivers in spades and I would highly recommend it. If you aren't into the feeling of bittersweet and hypnotic songs and don't like the feeling of emerging yourself into deep, dark,desolate places, "Civilian" is not going to work for all. Here's to hoping this duo's star continues to rise through the year, they deserve some recognition for "Civilian".

Grade: A-

JHO Picks:
The Altar
Holy, Holy
Hot As Day

If you heard the Strokes first single "Under Cover Of Darkness" when it was released a few weeks ago and thought, "Oh...this is gonna be like 2001 again, they're going back to their roots", you're going to be thoroughly disappointed in their fourth album "Angles". "Under Cover.." was a red herring. "Angles" instead finds the band searching for anything that works through, well, different angles of music.

And while it can be fun at times to watch a band explore different avenues for their band to delve into next, it can be a bit frustrating to listen to an album that has absolutely no musical compass. It's like the cliche of the band has come to a fork in the road and could go back down the street to the roots from where they started or take a whole new approach to their sound. Hey, either/or is fine with me. Instead, it seems they haven't made up their mind yet and have decided to keep it parked at the crossroads and maybe go fishing for eighties new wave vibes and bossa nova guitar licks.

Despite it's haphazard "let's try this" approach, there is still some things to like about "Angles". Albert Hammond Jr. works his guitar to a frenzied calculated winner on the choruses of "Two Kinds Of Happiness" even if the verses are a little too close to late Cars like material. Julian Casablancas' vocals on "Taken For A Fool" take a ride through eighties new wave into a wonderful chorus "You get taken all the time for a fool...You're so gullible but I don't mind" and even the bossa nova like guitar and flourishes of keys on the end song "Life Is Simple In The Moonlight" is enjoyable, if not entirely memorable. Where things work best is when the band just lets loose like on the cool strut of "Gratisfaction" or they show how to be a too smart band for rock 'n roll on "Under Cover Of Darkness" as Casablancas blatantly states the fact "Everybody's been singing the same song for ten years."

But the lesser moments on "Angles", the b-side ready "Metabolism" or "You're So Right", the drum machine and wimpy keyboards that engulf  "Games", or the really sparse and unmemorable "Call Me Back" are the Strokes on the too cool to care cruise control. Even when opener "Machu Picchu" tries to draw you in with its Haircut One Hundred type of attitude, you eventually just step back and think, "This is the Strokes, they really shouldn't be doing Haircut One Hundred like songs."

It was said that everyone in the band contributed in one way or another on "Angles", a free for all. And the ideas on "Angles" are abundant and much more interesting than their previous "The First Impressions Of Earth" which just fell flat all around. But it would've been nice for someone or anyone to take the reins here and say, you know, this is what we should focus on. Because listening to an album that doesn't gel and is simply a band trying to find out what works best as it goes along can be a bit of a drag. "Angles" is not terrible, but totally unnecessary. They said their already recording their follow up. Let's hope the Strokes can pinpoint what they want to do next time out. That way everyone can love it or hate it. Not say "What's Up With That?"

Grade: C+

JHO Picks:
Under Cover Of Darkness
Two Kinds Of Happiness
Taken For A Fool

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