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Bands with buzz: Wye Oak, La Sera, Alex Winston, Tabi Bonney

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Before the big time comes the buzz - that intangible quality you can't quite define, that comes in all shapes and sizes but is always the launching pad to greater success. Every band wants it. But how do you get it? There's no single magic formula. Here we profile four bands that are on the verge of big things - but each for different reasons - and explain how they got to this pivotal moment in their careers.

- David Malitz

Wye Oak

Young band hits its stride

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.


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