Wye Oak – ‘Civilian’

Jun 29th, 2013
| posted by: Lucy |

I have a lot to thank The Walking Dead for (and if you don’t know what I mean by that, please discontinue reading this, locate your television remote immediately and proceed to hammer yourself over the head with it in a violent fashion for at least 3 minutes)

Firstly, it played the part of non-prescription, tele-visual xanax. This was essential when the paralyzing panic set in after realizing I was completely up to date on Game of Thrones and would actually have to contemplate doing something productive with my evenings (one of two horrifying options: studying or developing a social life.. heaven forbid!). Evidently a necessity.

It also provided adequate explanation as to why the population of Kings Cross on a weekend behave in the manner they do. Clearly our beautiful city is actually secretly infested with ‘walkers’. Fortunately they appear to be restricted to certain areas at certain times, and are as such, largely avoidable – although authorities seem to be mistakenly under the impression this is all simply alco-induced and ‘government regulations’ will inspire brain stems to resume functioning as normal.

Third, it has generated atypical intellectual debates with friends and family (Eg. ‘If there were a zombie apocalypse, would you flee to Cockatoo Island or would you simply bunker down for a time – rationalizing that due to inflated real estate prices the herds would migrate to rural areas and eventually be lost on live export boats when attempting to consume the cattle?’).

But perhaps most importantly, it has forced me to utilize my ‘Shazam’ application without fail every episode.

One of these Shazamoments resulted in the delicious discovery of Baltimore pseudo-indie-folk-rock duo Wye Oak. Where had I been? (Oh that’s right. On the couch. Watching Game of Thrones and playing Words With Friends. Sigh.) Comprised of guitarist/vocalist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack, the two have been making music together for years, having met when they were fifteen – and it certainly shows. The title track from their third LP Civilian, released by Merge Records in 2011 featured in the trailer for the second season of The Walking Dead, as well as a couple of the episodes in the season.


Wasner’s inimitable, smoky voice and obscure phrasing are instantly captivating. There is an immediate emotional grip she holds over her listener. Dramatic dynamic shifts that would normally seem ridiculous only seem to add to the power she wields. It is as though she allows you to view her internally nude; shamelessly exposed where another would be self-conscious. The song simply wouldn’t work without this willingness for us to know her so intimately. ‘So what if I choose to breathe in the middle of the line instead of afterwards? I’ll decide where my own damn gap will be, thank you very much.’ The ‘screw the regular recipe’ method fortunately works – she exhibits a vocal stream of her sub-consciousness that reflects the lyrical content flawlessly.

I mean, it is obvious in the first verse – beginning tentatively with a rhythmic, deftly plucked guitar riff and her throaty, unapologetic vocals:

I am nothing without pretend
I know my faults, can’t live with them
I am nothing without a man
I know my thoughts but I can’t hide them

These are the flaws. This is the human that is so consistently glossed over in every day life. It is refreshing to hear such truth and have it professed by somebody in such a raw and real fashion. Wasner is immediately relatable. We live in a world where one’s image or ‘brand’ is meticulously self-constructed by a series of complex social media structures and hollow cases of caution. The unabashed simplicity of actual human emotion expressed in this song is, I believe, something we all wish we could attain without that constant fear of being considered pathetic. Fitting really – considering the name of the song.

The intensity builds as the song goes on, dropping off and picking up according to its’ natural emotional structure. The stark contrasts between hard and soft, strong and vulnerable, confronting and timid define their style. Whereas this particular method could (and does in other cases) so easily fail, for this couple it just works beautifully. They push only enough so that they come across as genuine rather than contrived – a very rare skill for a band.

But my inner femme-fighter is running off the mouth again… The under-stated synth and rhythm of Stack cannot be overlooked. The two truly are a duo – one cannot be without the other. There is a pounding, progressive beat here that drives the song forward. A desperate engine whose driver seems to have his eyes shut and yet knows exactly where he is going, and how fast he needs to go in order to get there. Particularly in the third verse, when the song really hits its’ climax:

I don’t need another friend
When most of them, I can barely keep up with them
Perfectly able to hold my own hand
But I still can’t kiss my own neck

There is indeed a sense of urgency in the vocals and melody that is supported and pushed by Stack’s seemingly intuitive motoring. Push, push, push!! Keep up!! Keep up!! So poignant and contemporary really, when you think about it. We seem to all have so many friends and people and things going on in our lives that it is a constant struggle to stay neck-and-neck in a way that one should apparently with one’s facebook friends and the like. Perfectly able to motivate ourselves as we should, but desiring the help of somebody to help us, soothe us, encourage us. The rhythmic power in this verse captures a desperation for what we think we may not need in terms of survival, but if we were being perfectly frank we know we will eventually run out of steam.

As they do in the next verse, perfectly in sync, they crash into exhausted lament – dynamically, lyrically, rhythmically:

I wanted to give you everything
But I still stand in awe of superficial things
I wanted to love you like my mother’s
Mother’s mothers did

Admittedly it has taken awhile for them to come this far. They have now reached a point, after their first two LPs where they are recognized artists in their own right, supported the likes of The Decembrists and The National, and gained their own following. They are able to collect you and take you with them as they play. They enable themselves to be themselves – a quality so uncommon in even the most well-established of artists. The heat generated by their astounding emotive ability comes from their cohesiveness, which in turn comes after many years.

The real absurdity of it is to me that I discovered them through The Walking Dead – yet their music is all about what it means to be alive.

Wye Oak – ‘Civilian’


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