A decade ago, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack were waiting tables at the Golden West, the Baltimore restaurant where my brother used to wash dishes. Back when Wasner and Stack played their first show, they did it at the Golden West, a local institution with good hungover-brunch options and kitschy album covers all over the bathroom walls. The Golden West’s stage is pretty much a windowbox, so that’s where they played, their backs to whoever happened to be walking down 36th Street that night. Back then, they called themselves Monarch, a name they had to abandon when they learned that there were already bands named Monarch. Early on, they had a rep for being one of the city’s better live bands, but it was it was still a surprise when they signed to Merge, and then more of a surprise when their first album, 2008’s If Children, turned out to be a pretty great piece of small-stakes slowcore. In the decade since, Wye Oak have become one our most gifted, mercurial, unpredictable indie rock bands; I can’t think of anyone who has changed more over the course of five albums. It’s pretty fucking remarkable.
It only took Wye Oak a couple of albums to find their footing. By the time of 2011’s stunning Civilian, they’d expanded and atomized their sound, doing reverb-charged indie rock about as well as it could be done. There are plenty of people who wish that Wye Oak would always sound the way they sounded on Civilian, and while I don’t agree, I get it, the same way I get it when people wish that the Mountain Goats would go back to John Darnielle’s acoustic-guitar-and-boombox roots. But Wasner and Stack aren’t built like that. Wasner spent a couple of years exploring other sounds with a couple of side projects, the experimental Flock Of Dimes and the pop-happy Dungeonesse. And when Wye Oak returned, they did it with 2014’s Shriek, an album of idiosyncratic synthpop that absorbed everything Wasner had learned from those two side projects. Now Wye Oak are back, and it practically feels like they’re speaking their own language.
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs isn’t a defiant gesture the way that Shriek was; it doesn’t take a forceful left turn from the band’s old sound. It doesn’t have to. After Shriek, there’s no fixed Wye Oak sound. They don’t have to pivot away from anything in particular. The Louder I Call keeps the jittery, chirping synths of Shriek, but it doesn’t feel like an extension of that album. And it reintroduces Wasner’s flaring, crashing guitars, but it doesn’t feel like a return to the band’s Civilian sound, either. Instead, it’s a leap into the ether, an album that picks up sounds and ideas from gleaming pop and fuzzed-up indie rock without ever sounding like pop or indie rock or, for that matter, any other genre.
Wasner and Stack don’t live in Baltimore anymore. They’ve both moved south, to two very different places. Wasner is in Raleigh, North Carolina, while Stack has traveled way out to Marfa, Texas. They’re one of those long-distance duos now. That can be hell on a band’s internal chemistry, especially for a band who, like Wye Oak, doesn’t record all that often anymore. But Wye Oak wear disconnection well. They recorded and produced The Louder I Call themselves, spending week-long chunks in each other’s cities and pounding their new sound into shape. And that new sound seems built from disconnection, from the feeling that you’ve come unmoored in space and time.
The songs on The Louder I Call don’t follow any set format. They’re structured in their own strange, internal ways; we don’t generally get verses or choruses. The rhythms follow their own logic, too, with time signatures switching up at will. Shimmering keyboard figures fight for space with revved-up guitar roars. Wasner’s friends in Sylvan Esso might be an influence; we get some of that same combination of folk harmonies and spacey dance beats. But where Sylvan Esso seem determined to move as many people as possible, Wye Oak chase their own chemical equations. Their new songs are grand and sweeping, but they’re not accessible in the same ways.
The new Wye Oak could sound like a mess. It’s certainly firing off ideas in enough directions without much considering how all those ideas might cohere together. But in Wasner, they’ve got one of indie rock’s great instinctive voices, and she grounds everything without even really trying to do it. Wasner’s voice — smoky but emotive, halting but certain — can sell anything. Her lyrics on The Louder I Call may or may not be about anything specific. She tends to keep things broad and vague. But coming from her, everything sounds like wisdom. So the short, shimmery piano ballad resonates as an elegy for the way we’ve come to demand everything all the time: “We made the world large and wanted every piece of it.” In her musings about adulthood (“I am not old, but I’ve become afraid of things I never was”) and assertiveness (“I can’t hold onto my anger, though sometimes, it would do me good”), Wasner’s “I” registers as a “we,” which has a lot to do with how she writes but even more with how she sings.
The Louder I Call is an ambitious album, but it’s a deeply felt one, too. There are epiphanies to be had: “I have to love the life I make, make up for all the space I take.” There are grand, crashing crescendoes. But it’s less an album about moments, more about letting yourself be drawn into the warm, open-hearted, chaotic sound of the thing. Nobody really sounds like Wye Oak. Nobody would be able to sound like them if they tried. They’ve come a long way from the Golden West. They’ve got further still to go.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Cardi B’s as-yet-unheard, feverishly anticipated debut Invasion Of Privacy.
• Hop Along’s rich, electric indie-popper Bark Your Head Off, Dog.
• Flatbush Zombies’ raspy, energetic rap album Vacation In Hell.
• Dr. Octagon’s reunited-trio comeback Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation.
• Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s proggy, layered indie rocker Sex & Food.
• Hinds’ spindly indie-popper I Don’t Run.
• Eels’ Largo-ready smart-guy orchestral popper The Deconstruction.
• Kississippi’s warm, synthy Sunset Blush.
• Sad-rock supergroup Mastersystem’s debut Dance Music.
• Air Waves’ folk-influenced indie-pop party Warrior.
• Goat Girl’s detached, nervy self-titled post-punker.
• The Amazing’s proggily atmospheric In Transit.
• The Books member Paul de Jong’s solo outing You Fucken Sucker.
• No Thank You’s chugging, chiming All It Takes To Ruin It All.
• Mind Over Mirrors’ trancily folky Bellowing Sun.
• Sorority Noise guitarist Adam Ackerman’s solo album Autobiologist.
• Blithe Field’s blissed-out instrumental collection Days Drift By.
• Messa’s doom metal adventure Feast For Water.
• The Wonder Years’ effortlessly ambitious pop-punker Sister Cities.
• Kali Uchis’ adventurous soul-popper Isolation.
• Kylie Minogue’s gleaming pop opus Golden.
• Zola Jesus’ supplemental collection Okovi: Additions.
• The podcast-borne Mountain Goats tribute compilation I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas.
• The Johnny Cash unpublished-writings tribute compilation Johnny Cash: Forever Words.
• The two Elton John tribute compilations Revamp and Restoration.
• Snakehips’ Stay Home Tapes EP.
• Kwes’ Songs For MIDI EP.
• Ross From Friends’ Aphelion EP.
• Pole Siblings’ Sköljer Bort Dig EP.