Civilian, the 2011 album from Baltimore’s Wye Oak, was the kind of breakout success that every small band hopes for. It appeared on scores of year-end lists, one of its songs landed prominent placement in a hit television show, and the resulting acclaim earned the band opening slots for indie arena acts like the National and the Decemberists. And, roughly halfway through what should have been an extended victory lap, frontwoman Jenn Wasner lost her voice.
“It was the worst thing ever,” Wasner remembers. She’s sitting in a diner in Baltimore with bandmate Andy Stack, on the day the group’s fourth album, Shriek, was released. The pair has just enough time to grab breakfast and talk for an hour before walking around the corner to the Ottobar, a Charles Village venue they’ve played many times since releasing their first album in 2007, to rehearse for their upcoming tour.
Though Wasner talks casually about her vocal scare now, at the time, the doctor’s mandate was severe: No talking, no singing, no drinking, no smoking, no spicy food, no sugar, no caffeine. “I actually learned a lot from this process,” she explains, downing coffee and pouring hot sauce on her home fries. “I also had a vocal coach. And she’s taught me all the things I was doing wrong, and what things I could do better.”
At first pass Shriek, the title and cover of which evoke a kind of Edvard Munch primal scream, feels like a direct echo of that experience. In the interviews she’s given surrounding the album, Wasner has spoken about that period so freely she’s aware of having inadvertently alarmed some friends and loved ones. “A lot of the press behind this record is just like, ‘I had a nervous breakdown! I hated everything!’” she says with a self-deprecating laugh.
In reality, however, Shriek may be the most serene and gorgeous Wye Oak album to date, one that reflects Wasner’s renewed comfort with singing and writing. “I had to figure out how to feel better, and get back in touch with things that I was feeling and the person that I am,” she says. “And that’s sort of what the record in itself is about.” The trauma also inadvertently suggested a new way of approaching melody. “There’s a certain ethos that I went into the record with,” Wasner explains. “Everything’s supposed to be super minimal. There are maybe two harmonies on the entire record; everything else is sort of octaves, very spare.”
The most obvious indication of that minimalism on the album is the noticeable absence of guitar. On Shriek, Wasner instead concentrates on synth and bass, and songs like “Despicable Animal” and “Schools of Eyes” luxuriate in the slippery, syncopated grooves of Stack’s drums. Even the typically somber air of Wasner’s writing lifts for outright synth-pop ventures like “Logic of Color,” Shriek‘s sweetly swooning closing track.
The album’s starker, more rhythmically-driven sound came as a surprise to Wye Oak fans who fell in love with the swirling, shimmering guitar tones that dominated earlier albums. The band managed to whip up a mild backlash to the album before anyone had heard a note of it, simply by revealing it was made without guitars. “We sorta gravitated to [the guitar] for the live show because it made so much sense, but I’ve never seen it as a really fundamental part of what we do,” Wasner says. “It didn’t even exist yet, and there were a lot of people who were like, ‘Count me out, this is stupid!’” laughs Stack.
In some ways, Shriek, which debuted at No. 67 on the Billboard 200, fits in with a proud lineage of “difficult fourth albums,” the point at which many artists begin tinkering with their formula and challenging fans to embrace a new sound: Kid A, Remain in Light by Talking Heads, or even 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye West. Mentioning this theory to Wasner, she nods in recognition. “I typically love those records,” she says. “I’m almost always on board with them.”
The transformation is a radical one to be sure, but even in their earliest days, Wye Oak was a band with a clear sense of what they wanted to accomplish. The first time I saw Wasner and Stack perform was in early 2007. They were called Monarch then, and I was one of maybe a couple dozen people in the audience at the Lo-Fi Social Club, a short-lived south Baltimore venue that closed later that year. Their live sound seemed fully formed after just a few months of playing out; I was so transfixed by the song “Obituary,” which they’d release a few weeks later on their debut album, If Children, that I went online and listened to it over and over on the band’s MySpace page.
Within a year, things started happening. They changed their name (there were already other bands called Monarch) and, before much of anybody outside Baltimore had heard of them, they attracted the attention of Merge Records, who reissued If Children in 2008. Well before their second album, The Knot, was even released, they’d dropped most of If Children from their set. I got an early glimpse of Wasner’s restlessness at a 2009 show, where she declared: “I’m sick of our old record.”
They continued to expand their sound by small increments and by Civilian, they’d hit new heights, creatively and commercially. Its title track provided the band with a bona fide pop culture moment, when it soundtracked a pivotal scene in the second season of the AMC hit series The Walking Dead. “It’s cool. It’s just really strange,” says Wasner of the way the band is now attached, in the public mind, to a TV show. Stack, for his part, doesn’t hide his exasperation that roughly a third of their interviews now contain questions about zombies. “Our manager recently joked that ‘Civilian’ is our ‘Margaritaville,’” says Wasner; the song has become an unlikely crowd-pleasing encore at the band’s concerts.
Shriek is well positioned to further advance the band’s reputation. From the top down, the album feels like a new beginning, as imaginative as what they did in the past, but existing within a whole new sonic territory.
Some of that reinvention is a direct result of Wasner’s extracurricular pursuits. Her increasing confidence in making music with synths and programmed beats came about through a series of solo singles released under the name Flock of Dimes, and her familiarity with bass guitar was burnished during two tours with Baltimore instrumental ensemble Horse Lords. In fact, Wasner has long been active in the Baltimore music scene, recording and performing with everyone from underground rap collective Height With Friends to soul singer Bosley to alt-country singer-songwriter Caleb Stine. In 2013, she and producer Jon Ehrens (also of White Life and Repelican) released a shiny, bubbly dance pop album under the name Dungeonesse that, in many ways, presaged the creative direction of Shriek.
“I was excited for her,” says Ehrens of Wasner’s decision to continue Wye Oak with different sounds and influences in the mix. “A lot of bands that I know get worried, like, ‘Oh we have to break up because we don’t feel like making this kind of music anymore.’”
Indeed, the band’s durability is one of their defining traits. In recent years, Wye Oak has weathered the kind of setbacks that fracture lesser bands. Wasner and Stack, who started the band as a couple, ended their relationship in 2010; Stack has moved away from Baltimore, first to Portland and now Marfa, Texas. And playing shows in their hometown, once a vital part of the group’s identity, has become increasingly fraught with complications. “I just can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from people, ‘I tried to come see you guys at Ottobar and couldn’t get in!’” says Wasner. As a result, in late July, they’ll play a proper homecoming gig — their first in two years — in a parking lot outside the Metro Gallery that typically hosts festivals.
A week after we spoke, in lieu of a Baltimore show, Wye Oak headlined the famous 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Seeing the band onstage for the first time in years, I have to admit I was relieved to watch Wasner visibly enjoying herself. For an encore, they played an arrangement of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” that rebuilt the song to suit bass-heavy template of Wye Oak circa 2014. It brought me back to something Wasner said at the diner. “Performing is weird. It does not come naturally to me; it’s something that we embrace semi-reluctantly.” From the looks of her onstage — dancing, grinning at Stack, gamely playing to the audience — you’d be hard pressed to notice.