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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
After the tour of 2011’s fantastic breakthrough Civilian, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner hit a serious patch of writer’s block. Unable to break through for months, she was forced to resort to drastic measures — temporarily abandoning the electric guitar that formed the backbone of her band’s output to date. Shriek, then, is in no small terms a departure from Wye Oak’s established modus operandi, and the results are unsurprisingly mixed.
With Wasner’s guitar (mostly) sidelined, it falls to drummer and newly minted synth player Andy Stack to do a bit more heavy lifting than in the past. Where before the Baltimore duo impressed listeners with the versatility and raw energy of a few relatively simple instruments, a much larger chunk of the soundscape now becomes available to play with.
What remains intact is the core of Jenn Wasner. Civilian could sometimes be claustrophobic and busy, but Shriek’s space between the synth notes leaves a bit more breathing room for her capable alto. Her favorite lyrical themes, typically revolving around vaguely ethereal or abstract dreams, are front and center here. However, the instrumental nature of Shriek exposes a weakness that’s been true of Wasner for years: She’s much better at writing a guitar riff than a memorable vocal melody. With previous albums, she had the option to cede control of the song to her guitar, but Shriek provides her with no such crutch. Some tracks, like opener “Before,” show Wasner to be an enigmatic frontwoman, but on “Despicable Animal,” her voice is unable to herd a meandering song back home to the barn.
Some tracks on the Shriek experiment (assuming this is a one-album diversion) are undeniable successes. One of those is lead single “Glory,” which kicks off with dark paranoia undercut by a poppiness surprising for Wye Oak. But it doesn’t take long for Wasner to enter full-on apocalyptic prophetess mode. “I see the clock as it turns backwards / I see the water run uphill,” she sings before the song convulses into a nightmarish breakdown of bump-in-the-night synths.
It becomes quickly apparent that Shriek‘s lack of guitar has Stack and Wasner excited with new possibilities that weren’t previously open to them. “Sick Talk” flirts with straight-up synthpop, but ultimately backs off the CHVRCHES act by the time the chorus runs around. On “I Know the Law,” Wasner dips her toe in the waters of European R&B. “In order to preserve this life,” she sings, “I have given my life precedence over yours.” But even on these little twists of genre, Wye Oak can’t bring itself to commit all the way, always tailing into some noisy or cluttered spiral. Those little winks do serious damage to Shriek’s integrity — it’s hard take a song at face value when even the band doesn’t take it entirely seriously.
Shriek is a grower of an album. Outside of “Glory,” there’s very little here that immediately grabs and demands the listener’s attention, but given time, Shriek opens up. It’s just about par for the course now for Wye Oak’s music to be almost completely devoid of warmth, but the depth of sound and Wasner’s cryptic lyrics will keep the record in rotation. Fans of Wye Oak will find plenty to love, and newcomers are encouraged to find a different entry point.