Why Wye Oak Writes Songs That Aren’t Happy

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Wye Oak is a band that, if nothing else, understands contrast. Their sound is a mixture of dream pop and dark folk dominated by nu-gaze, that mid-2000s renewed interest in pedal-driven walls of guitar distortion and buried vocals. It’s a moody mix, a feeling of elation and melancholy introspection.

“I think it’s a little shortsighted to try and classify songs as positive or negative,” frontwoman Jenn Wasner tells us over the phone. “My mom would always tell me, ‘Why don’t you write more happy songs?’ And I would always tell her that just, like, it’s impossible to feel only one feeling at a time. Usually songs are the same way. You don’t write a happy song or a sad song; you write a good song. There’s complexity and nuance to it.”

The titular track from Civilian, the Baltimore band’s third album, builds with rosy delicacy before dissolving into furious, claw-your-eyeballs-out introversion. Their follow-up effort, Shriek, was far more bass-driven and synth-laced, but only expanded Wye Oak’s sullen, yet buoyant, textures.

In between these two albums, Wye Oak wrote a number of tunes — the exception being “Watching the Waiting,” which was written much more recently — that were scrapped, but have now been reworked into Tween, released last month. Living up to its namesake, Tween balances between the two different styles, drawing from both to build its own narrative.

“We did a lot of reworking and producing with the new skills that we’ve acquired in the past few years since we wrote them,” Wasner says. “I think they’d be very, very different sounding songs if we had finished them when we wrote them as opposed to now.”

One of the album’s main strengths is its cohesiveness. Records like this that pick up the slack of “lost” recording sessions often come across as patchwork artifacts of what could have been. But Tween feels fully realized.

The dark bluegrass riffs on “Too Right” carry traces of “There, There” by Radiohead with all its foresty overtones, while the earthy sunshine beat on “Better (For Esther)” explodes with radiance. At first, “No Dreaming” may sound like Beach House (also a dream pop duo from Baltimore) in a good way, but explores a distinct darkness that is archetypal Wye Oak.

Wasner says, “A lot of these songs directly have to do with trying to figure out who you are, the truth of who you really are, so you can present a more genuine and authentic self.”

The duo formed a decade ago, with singer-guitarist Wasner and Andy Stack, who simultaneously manages drums and synths. Named for the former state tree where they used to call home, Maryland, Stack and Wasner now live in Marfa, Texas and Durham, North Carolina, respectively.

“I think in a lot of ways, it’s an asset to us [living in different states] because we work better alone,” Wasner explains. “It’s really helpful to have space and distance to take chances and learn new skills. It’s definitely in a lot of ways helpful for both of us to have that space before we reach out to each other and start to collaborate and share. I see it as a positive.”

The space gives Wasner time to work on her solo project, the synth-laden Flock of Dimes, which Wasner tells us will have a new album in September that is “not announced yet, but it is imminent.” Wye Oak also intends to release another album, but can’t say how far off it is.

“One thing I’ve definitely learned for better and often for worse is that you cannot rush creativity,” Wasner says. “It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that.”

Wye Oak is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Monday, July 18.

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