Siobhán Kane caught a Wye Oak show at Flèche d’Or in Paris a couple of weeks ago.
Jan Wasner and Andy Stack have quietly been causing little ripples in the Baltimore music scene for some years now, but with the release of their third full-length record Civilian this year, their long-term intentions are clear, with their very beautiful and deceptively heavy sound stretching its legs in this interesting venue that used to be an old railway station. In fact, Flèche d’Or is a particularly special place for the band, since they played there on their first European tour, playing the same night that Obama was elected President.
They are here as part of the Super Mon Amour! evening which also hosts bands kakkmaddafakka, Team Ghost, ELEKTRISK GØNNER and Chevaliers Play – but in truth the most exciting part of the billing was the addition of Wye Oak. Having only played support slots in Ireland previously, there is great hope that at some point soon they will play a headline show, and if this evening is anything to go by, it should be a beautiful, blissful experience. Over the last number of years they have grown in stature, initially under the name Monarch, but later changing their name to Wye Oak, and signing with Merge Records in 2008,who re-released their first record If Children straightaway. Since then they have given us The Knot (2009) and the EP My Neighbour/My Creator (2010) before this year’s multi-faceted gem Civilian.
Their sound is so diverse, throwing you around from Neil Young to Yo La Tengo, and dream pop to shoegaze, and here they showcased all of their tastes diligently but loosely, and that is the grace of Wye Oak; two small people making such a huge, all-encompassing sound. There is Stack to the left hand side of Wasner playing drums, keyboards, backing vocals – at times it seems like he might have six hands, because of the amount of sounds he creates. He and Wasner are in perfect sympathy, she plays an array of guitars with ease, and her voice is completely mesmerising, at times (in terms of tone) not dissimilar to fellow Baltimore native Victoria Legrand, but then, like Legrand, her voice is very unusual – and at times you cannot make out what she is saying, but that happens a lot on the records too, and there is something strangely meditative about it; the vocals are never placed as the central focus, so everything equally vies for your attention.
In a live setting there is potential that this might backfire, but it never does, in fact, the appreciative audience sway in communion without straining to hear the lyrics too much, yet the lyrics are always quite interesting. When the title track is played, (which has a hazy seventies feel) Wasner sings, “I still keep my baby teeth in the bedside table with my jewellery, /you still sleep in the bed with me, my jewellery, and my baby teeth” there is a sense of gentle menace, if there can ever be such a thing. In fact, so much of their work contains a sense that all is not well, but perhaps it might be, eventually. ‘Civilian‘ as a song is a full microcosm of Wye Oak’s sound, which is twisting, romantic and tormented. It begins with a gentle finger picking guitar, then further layers are added; Wasner’s yearning vocal, the tambourine,then fuzzing guitars, until it descends or crescendoes (both apply) into a drum-laden tale of distress with haunting reverb, echoey vocals and the kind of song where you don’t quite know where it is going, but you are compelled to follow. By the end you feel like they have tossed a lit match back into proceedings, and are walking away from their haze of chaos as so many of the best film endings would have them do.
They move around their third record (in particular) fluidly, from majestic songs such as the furiously guitar-heavy ‘Holy Holy‘ and ‘The Alter‘ which makes great use of Wasner’s melancholy-drenched vocal and wobbly, psychedelic keyboards, to other half-lit compositions like ‘We Were Wealth‘ with its surprising, stuttering keyboard and choral-influenced and layered vocals (which brings to mind Beach House in all their finery). The only real surprise is that Wasner’s stage presence is charmingly modest and lovely – for a band that creates mysterious, intriguing and at times achingly dark music, she is bright and funny and goofy. There is also an obvious kinship between her and Stack; their care for each other and the music radiates far beyond the venues walls, to over the Seine and far away. Perhaps this is the key to how two people can make such great, deeply felt and alive music, which is both slow-burning but epic, like so many of the best things are. – Siobhán Kane