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The Haul: Wye Oak's My Neighbor / My Creator EP

Wye Oak – My Neighbor / My Creator CD – Merge, 2010 – $8 (Show at the Middle East Upstairs, 9/2)

Wye Oak's My Neighbor / My Creator EP

Here’s some excellent advice: Go see Wye Oak live. Don’t wait a few years like I did; see them the next chance you get. While I’ve enjoyed the Yo La Tengo / Folksongs for the Afterlife back-porch charm of their two full-lengths, 2007’s If Children (2008 Merge pressing) and 2009’s The Knot, they’re a different act live. Jenn Wasner’s weathered voice is enchanting and empathetic, removing a bit of the restraint she shows on their records. The jagged soloing and reverbed chords of her guitar work makes me long for a Wye Oak live album. Drummer Andy Stack pulls double duty by playing the bass lines on keyboard with one hand. And these aren’t simple, held-note bass lines—they sound natural, like they have an honest-to-goodness third member up there. Certainly check out their records, but recognize that Wye Oak’s unrelenting forward momentum means you’ll hear better versions of earlier songs and new material that improves upon the old when you see them live.

It’s hard, then, to hit pause on their evolution and rewind to this EP, which was first available back in March, but My Neighbor / My Creator deserves attention. Five songs, including a remix of The Knot’s “That I Do,” might seem slight on paper, but the four new songs rank among Wye Oak’s finest moments. “My Neighbor” demonstrates the combination of tricky guitar riffs and inviting vocal hooks that made The Knot memorable, but finds its missing ingredient in the occasional levity of If Children. “Emmylou” proves they can tackle alt-country at higher speeds just as well as the ambling tempo of The Knot’s devastating “Mary Is Mary.” “My Creator” adds wheezing organs and tape effects, but it’s the nimble arpeggios and focused songwriting that keep me coming back. As for the Mickey Free version of “I Hope You Die,” I would not have anticipated the addition of police sirens, synth bass, skittering sound effects, and (most shocking) Free’s own rapping, so you can't call it predictable.

I have to go back to my previous comment about “better versions of earlier songs” for the best track from My Neighbor / My Creator. The live take of the affecting “I Hope You Die” casts aside the keyboards and saxophone of the EP version for a more typical transition from solo guitar and voice to fiery, Andy Cohen-esque soloing. (Side note: If you’re unaware of my fondness for the guitar work Andy Cohen of Silkworm/Bottomless Pit, this is mammoth praise, even if Wasner's still developing her style. “Don’t Make Plans This Friday” and “Tarnished Angel” have two of my favorite solos ever.) What makes this transition work is resonance of the material. “I Hope You Die” offers a remarkably open tale of (I assume) Wasner’s mother’s illness. There’s both poetry—“At the ringing of a bell / Or at the falling of a tree / If you think of it at all / Remember me / Just me”—and exasperation—“Against your will / You are alive”—in the lyrics. The overwhelming catharsis on stage is such a natural amplification of these emotions. That performance has been stuck in my gut for a month. The original is still wonderful, but it’s hard to go back.

In line with their rapid release schedule, Wye Oak is recording a new album now. I was treated to a few tracks from it, most notably “Holy Holy.” The majority of the song is a likable, mid-tempo strummer, but at 4:25 of this clip Wye Oak kicks it into another gear. Between Wasner’s ascendant vocal melody and the anthemic guitar work, this part of “Holy Holy” reminded me of catching new songs from my favorite bands on 120 Minutes back in the ’90s and rewinding the tape over and over to burn the good parts into memory. It’s a hell of a teaser for Wye Oak’s third album.

There isn’t an official release date for that album yet, but Wasner did mention that it will be the first Wye Oak album pressed on vinyl. (They did have a split seven-inch for Record Store Day 2008 with Destroyer.) Wasner also discussed the possibility of The Knot getting a vinyl pressing for Record Store Day 2011, so hopefully Merge will apply some of the considerable Arcade Fire cash to that deserving cause. In the meantime, track down this EP, view Wye Oak’s superlative cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers” in the AV Club’s Undercover series, listen to their covers of “Dance My Pain Away” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and check out their upcoming tour dates with David Bazan. It's quite a to-do list.

(One final note: Found this and couldn't pass up sharing it: Wye Oak and the Supernaturals covering Talking Heads' "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)," one of my favorite songs.)