"I'M IN A LOOSE, adrift kind of place, emotionally speaking," Jenn Wasner writes. Wye Oak's singer/guitarist is quite literally speechless; it's forced the dynamic duo to cancel a pre-SXSW Atlanta date and our conversation to take place via email. Wasner and drummer Andy Stack are the proud creators of one of this winter's most intriguing albums, the heaving, cavernous Civilian. The project was born, according to Wasner, of mental beasts. "I was going through a rough time personally," she explains, "so I pretty much allowed myself to be completely consumed with the writing process." The result: a much-needed emotional exorcism and, oh yeah, a goddamned good record.
You can still feel the ache all over Civilian, from the detached codependence of the title track ("I still keep my baby teeth/In the bedside table with my jewelry/You still sleep in the bed with me/My jewelry and my baby teeth"), to "Plains," where a steady, oozing sadness is interrupted by lumbering bursts of lucid beauty. Yet there's effortlessness to Civilian that delivers it from the murk. It's a departure for Wye Oak, whose previous work often displayed a see-what-sticks mentality. Wasner attributes this newfound, clear-eyed focus to a dramatic increase in self-confidence. "We've learned to trust ourselves and make some decisions quickly that, in the past, we would have spent months agonizing over. It was scary at the time, but looking back I think our first impulses were usually the right ones."
The most astonishing thing about Civilian is its sonic depth. By all reasonable expectations, a two-piece band shouldn't sound this thick. "[To] this point, our duo setup has been one of those limitations that's inspiring and mind expanding," writes Wasner, who describes the band's writing process as an upward movement. Both band members play extensive roles in Wye Oak's textural presence: Besides his decisive drumming, Stack's keyboard work is the group's unheralded backbone, while Wasner is as quick with a haunting, unsolved melody as with a howling guitar solo. Wye Oak's versatility is the source of its power, and for now, it's what's keeping Wasner afloat. "As long as we're touring, I'm happy."