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Reviews: Wye Oak's Civilian

Wye Oak's Civilian

The drawback of being a great live band is that it puts enormous, potentially unrealistic expectations on the accompanying recorded material. It’s easy to romanticize a live performance after the fact: my memories of Shiner’s gut-punching heft causing venue-wide indigestion, Mogwai’s set-ending sonic assault sending my scrambled brain cells off course for the drive home, Stars of the Lid’s evocative swells transforming me into a blubbering mess, and Juno’s fire turning the antiseptic University of Illinois Courtyard Café into a living, breathing entity are equal parts truth and legend. In contrast, studio material very well be iron-clad fact; it's hard to develop a legendary aura when you can study every detail. Some bands soldier through this situation (Shiner’s The Egg miraculously living up to a summer of performances of its title track and “The Simple Truth”), while others fall into the cliché of “not capturing the live energy” (i.e., Mogwai’s “My Father My King”). The specifics of why an album does or doesn’t measure up to its live takes vary by the artist, but the disconnect between rose-colored memories and the unblinking truth of the tape is the usual culprit.

A case study: I lavished Wye Oak’s live performance last September with effusive praise, marveling at how Jenn Wasner turns into a solo-shredding icon on stage, previously reserved songs like “I Hope You Die” burst apart at the seams with deserved catharsis, and new material like “Holy Holy” demonstrated another quantum leap for a young band. Prior to that performance, I enjoyed their records and appreciated the upward arc of their career, but didn’t expect outrageous things from their next record. Yet as the time passed from that live performance to Civilian’s March release, my expectations became unwieldy. I wanted the recorded material to match its live character with broad, openly emotional strokes, not act as its reserved, subtly crafted counterpart. No, I wanted it to surpass that live character. If “Holy Holy” didn’t offer a religious experience of gloriously melodic indie rock, I’d chalk it up as failure. This is why I labeled those expectations as “potentially unrealistic.”

There was a simple recourse to this dilemma: wait it out. That’s the benefit of writing on my own time without an editor breathing down my neck about deadlines. I can let great albums sort themselves out, like I did with Bottomless Pit’s Blood Under the Bridge last year, for however long it takes. I knew I enjoyed Civilian too much to make a rush judgment on it. So I kept listening to it—in the car, in the kitchen, in the living room, in my office—separating the reality of the document from the romance of that performance. The weeks flew by, but rarely without a few spins of Civilian.

Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between Wye Oak’s studio recordings and live performances was essential. The records allow Wasner to work out her issues; the live performances embrace the power of those issues approaching a resolution. “I Hope You Die” from My Neighbor / My Creator exemplifies this relationship: on record, it’s a restrained, introspective plea for a physical resolve; live that resolve has presumably occurred and the dam can break.

The key to that scenario is that I heard the studio version first. It’s much easier to go from point A to point B, from uncertainty to certainty, rather than vice versa. Yet the commendable aspects of Wye Oak—they tour constantly, they keep writing and debuting new material—mean that you may encounter that opposite scenario, like I did with Civilian.

The second biggest realization is that Civilian offers the most certainty of those supposedly uncertain studio recordings. With the triumphant alto chorus of “Holy Holy,” the western trot of “Civilian” exploding into its double-tracked solo, the precision of “Dog Eyes” giving way to its chord-slashing stomp, or the ascendant outro of “Hot as Day,” Wasner and Andy Stack display newfound confidence in their abilities and execution. There’s still room for live amplification—“Plains” evokes the measured pace of Shannon Wright’s Let in the Light, closing track “Doubt” strips the arrangements down to just Wasner and her guitar—but the more I went between Civilian and its live counterparts (courtesy of two excellent bootlegs from NYCTaper and a painfully short opening set for The National / Yo La Tengo show at the Bank of America Pavilion in September), the smaller that gap became.

The performances thrive on such certainty and confidence, but Civilian’s lyrical insecurities give the album legs. Whether it’s religion (“Holy Holy,” “Dog’s Eyes”), love (“Civilian”), or trust (“Doubt”), Wasner finds a compelling perspective between knowing what traditions don’t work for her and what glimmers of truth actually do. When cynicism threatens to take a firm hold, the warmth and comfort of Wasner’s voice helps center its lyrical content.

When I think back to what I initially hoped to hear—broad strokes like Wasner belting out every song’s chorus, fretboard-torching solos in every other song—I shake my head and hold tight to what I have on Civilian. Not having concrete answers in every song gives me a reason to keep coming back. If Wasner’s songs ultimately serve to sort things out, mirroring that process is a worthy, ever-ongoing endeavor.