Wye Oak are a band that never seem to reveal too much. Despite the angelic vocals of Jenn Wasner, their music and its atmosphere do most of the talking. The Baltimore-bred duo of Andy Stack (drums, keyboards, vocals) and Wasner (vocals, guitar, bass) allow moody keyboards, slashing guitar riffs and tumbling drum fills to really paint the picture. Their last full-length album, Shriek, was released two years ago, and if I’m to correctly decipher a recent cryptic press release, Tween is more of a stopgap than a “proper” album. Wye Oak’s label made references to albums like R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office and the Who’s Odds & Sods for comparison, so with that in mind, this is obviously some sort of an outtakes/rarities collection.
For an collection such as this, it holds together remarkably well. The aforementioned Dead Letter Office is a fun listen, but that’s because you accept the fact that covers of Aerosmith and Velvet Underground songs are going to fit nicely alongside drunken takes of “King of the Road”. Their surprisingly faithful cover of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” notwithstanding, Wye Oak don’t even remotely strike me as a novelty band. So outtakes and rarities have the potential to be a dicey proposition in their hands. Fortunately, that’s not the case.
Things start out in a rather grand fashion with the instrumental “Out of Nowhere,” an electronic mini-symphony — sort of an overture, if you will — that sounds like the band is warming up, with drum machines sputtering to life and synth melodies coming out of the woodwork. This is the sound of a lean, potent beast awakening. Soon the album begins to tread familiar territory with “If You Should See”, a lush, multi-layered track that brings to mind sweetly melodic alternative pop of a previous age. Pulsing keyboards weave in and out. Drums are covered in reverb and effects. It’s a hazy, gauzy, comforting sort of buzz.
Wye Oak are in many ways a forward-thinking band, but their influences are definitely steeped in ‘80s bands like the Cocteau Twins, the Sundays, the Jesus and Mary Chain and, on a less abrasive scale, shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine. “On Luxury” is one of their more blatant nods to the ‘80s, as vocal figures are casually tossed off while a robotic keyboard bed provides a retro guilty pleasure. A highly syncopated, unanticipated percussion breakdown is a small, unexpected delight, building up to the song’s finale.
In “Better (For Esther)”, one of the album’s stronger songs, a mesmerizing guitar figure meshes with an insistent drum beat behind Wasner’s shimmering voice. The song’s post-chorus sections kick into gear a noisy synthesis of distorted guitar and keyboards, producing a cacophony that’s jarring and intoxicating and shows a unique knack for melody and arranging. “Trigger Finger” is probably the album’s best-known song as it was released last year as a single. One of the album’s more serious, ominous cuts, it’s also one that’s oddly uncluttered by the usual percussive clatter we’ve come to expect from Wye Oak. It provides a bit of a breather, but one that seems unsettling in a creepy, Radiohead kind of way.
Tween closes out on a relatively light, breezy note with “Watching the Waiting”, a more organic song anchored by folky acoustic guitar strumming. It’s definitely delivered with a lighter touch than the songs that preceded it, and ends things on a hopeful note.
Tween is surprising in that it’s extremely coherent for this type of compilation. There’s very few weak moments and the whole thing holds together nicely. For fans who are wondering when the next “proper” Wye Oak album will be released, take it easy. This is the real deal.