Some bands find themselves in the spotlight too early and fail to live up to unreasonable expectations. Others hit their stride after the moment of opportunity has passed. But for Baltimore's Wye Oak, the timing couldn't be more perfect.
Leading up to next week's release of its third album, "Civilian," the duo finds itself at twin peaks of artistic power and critical and fan interest. It has been a slow and steady ascent, and that's exactly how the band hoped it would play out.
"I'm only just now beginning to understand how to function, creatively and logistically, as a musician and as a human being," said singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner. "I'm still evolving and learning, as everyone does, but it seems appropriate that the record we've just made - one that I feel is our strongest, by far, and the most indicative of the kind of band we hope to be - is getting the most attention."
The buzz around "Civilian" has come the old-fashioned way. Wye Oak, which also includes drummer/multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack, has stayed very busy the past four years, releasing two increasingly promising albums (plus a stellar EP) and touring many months each year. Over that time, the duo has transformed from a mild-mannered indie-folk band to one that plays dynamic songs with a surging intensity. It's common for concertgoers to wonder whether there are extra members hiding somewhere and how all that noise can come from just two people.
When making "Civilian," Wasner wanted to make sure the songs maintained their intensity but also had room to breathe - "existing in a certain space and leaving empty space when necessary," she said. Fittingly, each of the band's main elements - Wasner's radiant vocals and majestic guitar-playing, Stack's lurching rhythms and extra accoutrements - has its time to shine.
"I knew exactly what I wanted from each song, so getting there was a much easier and more enjoyable process," Wasner said. That sense of self-assurance shows in the songs.
"Doubt" is a quiet meditation featuring only Wasner's voice and guitar. "The Alter" slowly gains steam with a repetitive keyboard riff and Stack's syncopated drumming, but it never completely explodes. That moment comes on standout "Holy Holy," and it serves to make it all the more cathartic.
That progression is an appropriate parallel for the duo's career. Bands don't start much more innocuously than Wye Oak, which five years ago wrote, recorded and self-released its debut album, "If Children." That album caught the ears of Merge Records - home of big Grammy winner Arcade Fire - which re-released it in 2008 and a follow-up, "The Knot," the next year, all while letting the band develop at its own pace.
Many hyped bands spend their entire careers trying to live up to or re-create their earliest songs. Instead, Wye Oak is gaining fans as it gains confidence.
"It's terrifying to think that we might have reached some sort of peak during the life span of one of our earlier records," Wasner said. "I'm much more familiar with how to function as a band, how to tour. It feels comfortable."
In the lead-up to "Civilian," the band has played to huge audiences opening for acts such as the Decemberists, Cold War Kids and Spoon. Once the album is out, the biggest headlining tour of their career awaits. And they will be more than ready for all the attention.
--David Malitz, March 2011
In 2008 Jana Hunter planned what was going to be her final tour as a solo musician. She used it mostly as an excuse to crisscross the country to see friends she thought she might not see for a long time if she stopped performing.
Hunter's music - deeply personal folk songs that feature her guttural vocals, a guitar and little else - never translated to an enriching concert experience. For all the emotional heft of the songs, the audience reaction, or lack thereof, made performing more like an awkward ritual than any sort of shared experience.
So Hunter, who lives in Baltimore, toyed with the arrangements to add texture, wrote parts for a rhythm section and enlisted bassist Geoff Graham and drummer Abe Sanders (who recently left the band) to join her on the road.
The changes emboldened her as a performer and writer. After a spot on the Baltimore Round Robin tour (curated by Charm City's underground king Dan Deacon), Hunter decided to start anew as a band.
"It was the first time that I had a band of my own, and [I] discovered that after putting some work into the beat writing, that I really enjoyed playing music, whereas before I had not ever enjoyed touring at all," says the Texas-born Hunter, 32. "And, yeah, these guys, we work well together. . . . I decided that I would like to write more songs if they'd be willing to continue playing with me."
That band became Lower Dens, which last year released its debut album, "Twin-Hand Movement," to wide acclaim and landed opening slots on tours with such indie stalwarts as the Walkmen and Deerhunter.
Every element on "Twin-Hand Movement" feels as if it's in its right place as the band works through 11 airy, psychedelic takes on post-punk. The rhythms can meander or be slightly more brisk, but they always leave plenty of space for the textured, experimental guitar riffs to guide the way. And then there is Hunter's androgynous-yet-melodic coo, which she uses both to draw out words and phrases into an almost indistinct warble and punctuate even simple "oohs" and "aahs" as catchy hooks.
Making it work so well did not come easily.
Initially, Hunter brought skeletal structures to the group, and from there they had to decide how to develop their sound. They listened to bands they all enjoyed - proto-punk godheads the Velvet Underground and post-punk luminaries Wire and Joy Division - and discussed the approaches those bands took.
With those ideas in mind, Hunter, Graham and Sanders wrote their respective parts and then collaborated to piece everything together. At first, it didn't quite take.
"We made all the songs - we actually had, like, I want to say five to 10 other songs - and we took them to South by Southwest, and we were so bored with our own arrangements," Hunter says, noting that the sound was much more "classic rock-y."
"We weren't thinking very hard about what we wanted from these songs," she adds.
It was then that they brought in guitarist Will Adams, a friend of Hunter's from her days in Texas who had played on one of her solo albums.
The group kept plying away and experimenting, inside the studio and out, before finding a sound they were ready to record. Getting there required a new dedication to being an artist and a change in work ethic, Hunter says, which she has emulated since seeing how Baltimore bands such as Beach House operate. And that theme - diligently pursuing one's craft - found its way into "Tea Lights" and other songs on "Twin-Hand Movement."
It's all about being "shamelessly self-confident," Hunter says, "just kind of looking into the art of your existence and accepting that in order to really contribute anything to this world you have to believe you are entitled to that responsibility."
--Brandon Weigel, March 2011