(7 Apr 2011: Schubas Chicago)
Wye Oak’s front woman guitarist Jenn Wasner and multidisciplinary right-handed drummer and left-handed keyboardist Andy Stack both sound at home on Schubas’ intimate stage no bigger than your grandpa’s den, and simultaneously too big for this Chicago tavern’s cramped back room housing fewer than 200 beer-drinking fans at a sold-out show. Their explosive fusion of noise rock and folksy Americana makes for a confrontational live performance, at first lulling unsuspecting listeners into a swaying trance before adding punctuation with burning guitar riff interludes and crashing percussion, as heard on “Plains”, “Civilian”, “That I Do”, and “For Prayer”. Wye Oak’s second studio album Civilian is overall a more instrumentally toned down release than its predecessor The Knot, yet more expansive in its travels. The small space at Schubas engenders a sensation of isolated listening only matched by wearing your favorite pair of aviator headphones, but you get the feeling Wye Oak’s sound is meant to be heard across greater spaces than simply just across the room.
Wye Oak’s noise aesthetic which characterizes their live performances, frequently overpowers Wasner’s haunting and subtly sensual vocals, enough so that it’s normal to sometimes not have any idea what she’s singing. It’s a creative intention which creates blended layers of musical expression by incorporating her voice as a harmonizing instrument instead of a tool for speech, preferring texture over a distinct segregation between lyrics and sound. But leading off with the minimalist opener “Two Small Deaths”, Wasner’s vocals float above a 1950s railroad rhythm of guitar and cowbell, reminiscent of The Walkmen’s “Blue As Your Blood”, and bookended by sailing electronics. The duo experiment with a poppier, more repetitive sound on the Snow Patrol-ish “Holy Holy”, and prove they need to graduate to playing amphitheaters quick with the dazzling “The Alter” which features a beautifully steely guitar solo that will make you weep for a past decade, and race home to watch Almost Famous. “The Alter” proves that if God was a woman she’d have Jenn Wasner’s singing voice.
Toward the end of the set, the duo blew the cover (literally) on a secret recording earlier that day when they played a cover of Danzig’s “Mother”, performed for an A.V. Undercover series installment. Their more relaxed take gives the cover a more reflective essence than the metal band’s more howling original, and should no doubt provide fierce competition for the other bands taking part in the A.V. Undercover series. This pair is all about volume, and we’re not talking about just loudness to your ears, we’re talking about amplitude that ripples your pant legs and beats your heart for you.