Let’s get this out of the way: There’s no guitar on this album. When Wye Oak revealed this tidbit last fall, many of us surely wondered what the Baltimore duo might even sound like without one of its most important elements. After all, the delight in Wye Oak’s music has always come from the interplay between Jenn Wasner’s blustery voice, her glorious cyclone of guitar riffs and screaming feedback, and skillful multi-tasker Andy Stack, who plays drums and keyboards — and on stage, simultaneously. But after the success of 2011’s Civilian, and countless tours performing within that “indie rock” format, it’s understandable that they’d feel restless and creatively blocked, and need to blow it up to start anew.
With its transportive fourth full-length album, Shriek, Wye Oak flips the formula: Wasner sets aside her signature axe to hold down the bottom on bass, and Stack takes over the melodic and harmonic duties, playing countless layers of synths and electronics that skitter around the periphery. At the heart, as always, is Wasner’s vocals, but this is essentially a new band with the same members. Still, this aesthetic shift is not without some precedent: Somewhat buried on its fantastic 2010 EP, My Neighbor / My Creator, is the bittersweet and fluttery keyboard-driven song “I Hope You Die” — not only my favorite Wye Oak track, but one that, in hindsight, lights the path toward the band’s evolution. And in some ways, Shriek is also a byproduct of folding Wasner’s dance pop-leaning side-projects (Flock Of Dimes and Dungeonesse) back into the main gig.
Some of this change is also the result of simple geographic challenges: After years in Baltimore, Stack moved to Portland, Ore., and then Texas — and living on opposite coasts forced the duo to forge a new method of collaboration; they experimented in isolation and sent tracks back and forth, before reconvening at Rare Book Room in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with Nicolas Vernhes to record. So while there’s no guitar on Shriek, (or, if there is, it’s been processed or disguised to the point of being completely unrecognizable, like on “Paradise”), Wasner and Stack maintain their unmistakably cathartic, always-potent songwriting dynamic, albeit with a new sonic template.
Throughout the record, there’s an undeniably funky thread that connects strains of early ‘90s R&B ballads (“I Know The Law”), synth pop (“Shriek”), and laptop electronics (“School Of Eyes”) — while tracks like “The Tower” or “Glory” are moodier, and more introverted, off-kilter, and syncopated than anything you’d hear in a dancehall. The remarkable thing about Shriek is that even with all the intricate beats, chirping arpeggio sequences, and otherworldly sounds pinging in the mix, there’s a streamlined concision in tracks like “Sick Talk” and the opener “Before,” which manages to be equally lush and minimalist.
Lyrically, Wasner has rarely never been more intimate as she addresses emotional wandering, loss, solitude, and uncertainty while searching for some internal comfort and personal agency. Elsewhere, in “Before,” she delves into her own psyche, pondering the cyclical and intertwined nature of memory and dreams: “This morning I woke up on the floor, thinking I have never dreamed before / And in the afternoon the nagging thought that I have never lived, or else forgot,” Wasner muses in her lovely, beguiling alto, now more powerful thanks to vocal training. By making the absolute most from the constraints of a duo, Shriek presents the kind of stunning, bold reinvention that makes getting lost in Wye Oak’s charms all the more enticing.