Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Between brave and crazy



Wye Oak
with Blitzen Trapper
8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6
The Social
all ages

One doesn't automatically expect level-headed pragmatism from the young. At the tender age of 23, Jenn Wasner already has it. The Wye Oak singer-guitarist is possessed of the sort of realist's worldview that most don't arrive at until staring down the barrel of 30 — or sadly waving it goodbye. In a phone interview, Wasner tempers her ebullient chatter with the sobered gravitas of an indie-rock lifer. She's sitting on her porch in Baltimore a few days before leaving on tour, enthusing over the wedding band she put together for the nuptials of the brother of her Wye Oak partner and boyfriend, Andy Stack, and gushing over B'more underground pals like "miniature, nature-oriented" folkie Small Sur and rapper Height.

"When Andy and I work, I work at a restaurant, and Andy's family is in the film business, so he freelances film stuff. He's the lowest guy on the totem pole … working the sound, fetching people from the airport, getting coffee — which is nice," she says. "We both kind of `scramble` and scrounge for money as we can. We're getting to a point where we're making the majority of our money from music stuff, and I think that's because we're a duo; we have low overhead."

That "music stuff" — two Merge-issued albums, 2008's If Children and this year's The Knot — has transformed Wasner and Stack into indie-rock demigods. The pair's nuanced yet explosive songwriting recalls the noisy napalm of early Yo La Tengo even as it touches on sweet-and-sour folk and folds in reams of autumnal strings. Like so many other rock greats, Wye Oak surreptitiously couch bad vibes in triumphant tuneage. If Children explored rocky family dynamics and prematurely aged psyches, while The Knot finds Wye Oak wading through scarier, more foreboding territory than before, daring to write the kind of dark, dusky love and life songs endemic to their elders. Smoky, heart-wrenching ballad "That I Do" diagrams painful lovers' disconnects; "For Prayer" eases slowly in and out of an epic spat. Ironically, given the subject matter, Knot finds the pair at its most creatively integrated, Wasner says.

"`If Children` was an individual endeavor. We had songs we'd written separately over three years," says Wasner. "‘Family Glue' I wrote when I was 17, and had it kicking around. On most of the Knot songs, lyrics and tunes are me but the arrangements are very collaborative. It was interesting because I've always been very private with lyrics, but I felt a lot more comfortable reaching out to Andy for help finishing a thought or a tune."

If Knot has a centerpiece, it's undoubtedly "Siamese," a lullaby-like amble of weeping violins, caressing guitar figures and ambivalently delivered intimations like "Don't look back/Hit him right between the eyes," "'Cause if you leave and I lose you/I lose my life and lose you, too" and "You couldn't scare me if you tried/Because I'm ready to die tonight." It's difficult to say whether "Siamese" represents the last will and testament of a Brave One—style vigilante or a lunatic's declaration of undying love. Either way, the track is deeply resonant in a way that no other Wye Oak song has been up to now — on par with Radiohead's haunting "A Wolf at the Door."

"A lot of people hear the arrangement and strings and think, ‘Oh, this is fun.' I like to hide things, to shroud them," laughs Wasner. "‘Siamese' is one of the happiest-sounding songs, and lyrically, the darkest. I think the urge was to temper light with darkness. I live in Hampden and I work at a restaurant near my house, and I find myself walking home with tip money, trying not to get raped or mugged. ‘Siamese' captures the sense of being so out of it, cerebrally, that I no longer care what happens to me — which is a shitty place to be."

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