Album Review: Wye Oak – The Knot

The Baltimore scene has a scorched earth policy of sending out blazing talent. Back in 2008, Rolling Stone fingered it as the best of the best. Tell that to Baltimore natives Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner (better known as Wye Oak), and you’ll get laughter. Both admit they don’t really buy into the hype. Good? Maybe. The best? That’s a stretch. According to Wye Oak, there’s a term explaining the frenzy to jump on the Baltimore bandwagon: Baltimoregasm. It may be that everyone has become a bit too over excited.

Tempering their praise of the scene that weaned them, it fits that Wye Oak holds an even hand to the plow as they meander through ten tracks on The Knot. Twisting and turning lazily as the title of the record suggests, Wye Oak recalls albums such as Portishead’s Third and O+S’ self-titled album. Interestingly, The Knot doesn’t share those albums’ electronic proclivities. The similarity of such albums stems not from the type of sound but the mode it takes: a gentle unfolding at a dawdling pace. In cases like this, it’s key to remember that the tortoise whipped the cotton ball off the hare’s backside.

I’d like to think that the tortoise had enough sense to rub it in the hare’s face, and, you know, do an end zone victory dance. Wye Oak doesn’t just chalk up a win with The Knot and call it a day; they go the creative extra mile and rub it in. “Mary is Mary” gambles with the success of the album. At seven and a half minutes, it doesn’t exactly scream indie rock, but “Mary is Mary” represents the logical end of other lengthy tracks on the album such as “Take It In” and “Sight, Flight” (both clocking in at over five minutes). Wye Oak could have produced ten tracks at three minutes each and put their feet up. That’s all that’s expected of an indie rock record these days.

By pushing the envelope length-wise on each track (and believe me, size does matter on The Knot), Wye Oak distends what could have been an average chamber pop record. (In the process, The Knot sheds any chamber pop signposts.) In its stead, The Knot has more in common with My Bloody Valentine and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Wye Oak confiscates the droning wall of sound of MBV regularly and on a track or two co-opting GY!BE’s tendency to build up to the breaking point. What’s more Jenn Wasner’s voice might sound just as legitimate had Wye Oak made an Americana record – and they almost did; “For Prayer” might even be classified as Americana anyway, and harmonica makes an appearance here and there across the landscape of the album. (Let’s not forget Maryland, historically speaking, was part of The South.) Adorn all this with keys and strings, and it isn’t difficult to understand just how well put together The Knot is.

Taking into consideration that Wye Oak still tours as a two-piece, Stack playing both drums and bass line, Wassner covering everything else, it’s a wonder the powers that be haven’t played Wye Oak up, capitalizing on such a “gimmick”. That gimmick shot The White Stripes into the atmosphere years ago. Wassner and Stack have explained in interviews that they’d much rather have fans that actually liked the music, and have therefore fought to minimize the relevance of their unique set-up. How delightfully novel! Backed by Merge Records, Wye Oak has been able to market itself the way it likes. Merge even re-released its debut If Children last year.

To understand how enjoyable The Knot is, look no further than “Tattoo”, the catchiest track on the album. It’s a Fleet Foxes sound-alike without being so similar as to have fit tidily on Fleet Foxes. The vocal harmony on “Tattoo” plays over lush fuzz and tinkling piano. Drum sticks click and clack in between verses. Wasser takes over vocal duties two verses in and steers the ship home, lovingly guiding it into port. “I Want for Nothing” begins where “Tattoo” leaves off with full-bodied strings and the slide of a guitar. Wasser repeats “I want for nothing” countless times, and it never grows tired.

The Knot, however, is not without pitfall; the scope and reach of the album not only works for it but also against it. Wasser handles her voice well, but there’s no denying her range is limited. On longer tracks, listeners may grow restless of Wasser’s quiet and simple alto vocal release (which is not to say her voice is weak). While “Tattoo” takes full advantage of partnering Wasser’s voice with harmony, other songs do not. “Siamese” might have benefitted from a richer vocal palette. As it stands now on the album, four tunes in, it breaks the stride of “For Prayer” and “Take It In” (at tracks two and three respectively) and warrants a pass when uploading The Knot to your iPod. While most will appreciate the protracted nature of The Knot, it doesn’t really provide for single digital downloads (other than “Tattoo”), and one or two listens isn’t enough to appreciate the whole. (I’ve been listening to The Knot now for a month before penning this review.)

Flaws aside, The Knot is a release for Wye Oak to be proud of. Generally speaking, those who already have Wye Oak on their radar will appreciate what The Knot has to offer. Those looking for a quick pick-me-up and instant accessibility may be less enthusiastic about the album. The Knot’s production price points elucidate the care with which Wye Oak creates. The Knot understatedly showcases a band intent on not tooting their own horn or overplaying their hand. Wye Oak avoids getting sucked into the hype-machine, and by doing so, produces a humble album of skill, talent, and most importantly taste. Wye Oak may be the tortoise, and as such, have fewer MySpace friends than some, but the slow and steady approach of The Knot produces a first place finish lengths ahead of the pack.

Check Out:
“Take It In”

The Knot


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