Some bands finally hit their stride after their line-up solidifies around a creative core due to the addition or loss of members. Others because of a style change, a new approach to making music, or any number of other factors. I'm increasingly most impressed by bands who don't radically change anything yet still deliver the best music they've ever made. Whether it's because of a sympatico producer or their first consistently great set of songs, it's comforting to know that not everyone is brilliant straight out of the gate, that it's never too late to turn a corner.
Beach House's Teen Dream was one of the best albums of 2010 despite the fact that the band weren't really doing much different. True, the music was more inviting and bright, but it mainly stuck with their take on dream pop as codified on Devotion. Its greatness lie in the excellent songwriting and engaging vocal performances of Victoria Legrand. Call it finding their voice or maturing as artists. Whatever the label, Wye Oak have taken a similar leap with Civlian even though it sticks close to what they had done before. Singer Jenn Wasner still has that husky/smoky vocal quality akin to, say, PJ Harvey and Nina Nastasia. Meanwhile the music continues to sound like Low with greater loud/quiet dynamics and spikier guitars. Indeed, perhaps a better way to describe them would be like a jam session between Low and Dinosaur Jr. Where Low often go for slow motion minimalism, Wye Oak draw more from dream pop and similar heavily atmospheric music. While not as noisy and overwhelming as shoegazer bands, songs do have moments of intense guitar storms, joyful and cathartic.
In 2009, Wye Oak's The Knot firmly established this aesthetic and came just shy of being their breakthrough; it's the sort of record where I would have a hard time deciding between a four or five star rating. No such handwringing is needed in the case of Civilian. Paralleling similar feelings I had when first listening to Teen Dream, there's an immediate sense that Wye Oak have fully delivered in every possible way. All of the songs are fantastic and both more distinct and more memorable than The Knot. Right off the bat, the band demonstrate greater imagination in songwriting. Album opener 'Two Small Deaths' avoids any expected loud/quiet dynamics, maintaining a mid-tempo movement with clattering percussion and a simple guitar line, blossoming into pretty choruses here and there. 'The Alter' follows and has an up-and-down groove to it, with a gorgeously psychedelic guitar breakdown around the 1:25 mark, all while sounding quite a bit like Beach House thanks to the repeated organ chords. 'Holy Holy' is up next, snarling to life with a noisy guitar right out of the playbook of late 80s/early 90s Sonic Youth.
Even while I find myself comparing Wye Oak to different bands, there remains a nagging voice in my head saying I still haven't nailed down what they sound like. 'Dogs' Eyes' operates under a logic only Wye Oak understands, with loud punishing riffs that would seem to have no place on an album you can compare to Beach House or Low (well, The Great Destroyer aside). At times Civilian sounds like a lost 4AD classic, gothic and folky, songs creeping along like kudzu vine overtaking cemetery gates. At other times, though, there's a glowing, headlong rush to the melodies, to say nothing of the pummeling guitar outbursts, two elements more akin to a band raised on a steady diet of indie rock from the 80s and 90s, when the “rock” part of “indie rock” got as much emphasis as “indie.”
Thus the splendid paradox of Wye Oak: they sound like many other bands, but because of the way they reconfigure these influences and constituent parts, they really don't sound much like other bands. And despite not changing much about their approach to making music or the overall feel of Civilian compared to The Knot, this one is far and away the superior album thanks to a full record's batch of memorable songs.