Wye Oak’s Civilian begins with indiscernible conversations from what sounds like a room full of people. More accurately, it sounds like what you might hear as an opening band takes the stage and settles in to play. Since most people in the audience aren’t there for the opener — and in most cases haven’t even so much as heard of them — it isn’t uncommon for the chatter to continue into the first few notes of the artist’s song. Civilian stays true to that, too. Then, like a real concert, “Two Small Deaths” introduces a wave of instrumentation which drowns out these voices. But unlike some shows where the audience grants silence as a courtesy, Baltimore’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack earn the hush of the crowd.
Right from these early moments, the music of Wasner and Stack is gripping across many levels, often sounding like the dreamy, folky lovechild of a pair of other noteworthy Baltimore outfits in Beach House and Lower Dens. Most of the songs here are driven by Wasner’s instantly engaging vocals which, like those of Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter, can be frequently difficult to make out, instead serving as an additional layer to the texture of the sound. Of course, there are a myriad of examples of times where her words stand out, such as the two poignantly written verses on the title track — “I know my faults/can’t live with them/I am nothing without a man/I know my thoughts/but I can’t hide them” and “I don’t need another friend/when most of them/I can barely keep up with them/perfectly able to hold my own hand/but I still can’t kiss my own neck” respectively — and on the thumping, rattling “Holy Holy”, where she raises her voice into focus and proclaims “all human joy is precious/and I for one should know this.” The music sounds great and Wasner’s voice is a remarkable part of that, but it’s in these lines where she gives personal glimpses of herself that it becomes possible to identify with the artist. That line about being nothing without a man? That’s a startlingly deep, personal confession to offer up so freely.
Stack’s contribution to this record — he delivers the percussion, keys, and backing vocals to Wasner’s lead vocals and guitar (which on some songs, like “Civilian,” approach unexpectedly brutal levels) — is nothing to gloss over either, of course. The majority of the cuts get their rhythm from the drum kit, with heavier outings such as the opener and the excitable “Hot as Day” and complementary softer tracks, like “Fish,” which uses a gentle array of percussion mixed mostly into the background save for the occasional burst of sound around the chorus. Stack’s gift is that regardless of the energy of the arrangement, there’s a perpetual warmth carrying the whole thing through, with “Plains” and “Doubt” being most exemplary of this.
When “Doubt,” the cathartic last track on Civilian where you can distinctly hear Wasner’s fingers move along the strings of her guitar to change chords, winds down to a close, there are no chattering off-stage voices. Not even a whisper. There’s just a lingering echo of their instruments’ feedback, then about three seconds of silence. Maybe the way the album begins isn’t supposed to put its 10 songs into the context of a live show, but certainly it ends the way you’d presume a Wye Oak show to close down: reflectively, with the audience’s appreciation at first silent in captivation. Then, though it might not be audible on Civilian, well-deserved applause.