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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Shearwater w/ Wye Oak @ Mad Planet

April 5, 2010

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Wye Oak’s 2009 album The Knot is caked with textural detail, a homespun tapestry patterned piecemeal around strings, horns, melodicas and keyboards. Wye Oak’s live show isn't. The Baltimore indie-rock duo recognizes the impossibility of bringing those arrangements to stage with just two sets of arms—drummer Andy Stack is already overbooked playing keyboard with his left hand—so in concert they embrace their guitar/drum foundation and kick up a lot of noise, freeing Jenn Wasner to shred on her guitar impulsively. The group’s demographics may be roughly the same, but nobody will mistake them for Beach House.

Stack is Wye Oak’s workhorse, but Wasner is the band’s attraction, an expressive singer with a sweet, achy voice. She looked a bit like a young Courtney Love on stage: blonde, pretty and pained, her body convulsing as she choked on the words she sang, her sad eyes squinting remorsefully. She played her guitar like its strings were made of barbed wire, strangling out of it a feral, trashy twang. Wye Oak’s no-frills setup meant that plenty of perfectly sad songs went un-played, but it was a small trade off for the intensity the band brought to the songs it could perform. When a fan timidly requested “Tattoo,” Wasner apologized that the band never figured out a stage treatment for the song, then made a sincere offer to sing it for him after the set.

Austin headliners Shearwater had triumphantly overhauled their once fairly standard folk-rock on their 2006 album Palo Santo, painting grand, cinematic soundscapes culled from the sounds of nature, but some of that intoxicating new car smell has worn off over the course of the releases they’ve subsequently issued through Matador Records. Lovely as it is, their new The Golden Archipelago can be too soft for its own good, and its songs about the ecology and wildlife of a secluded island lack the charge and universality of Meiburg’s more man-oriented prose.

These days, though, the difference between hearing Shearwater on record and seeing them life is the difference between viewing an animal in the zoo and witnessing them in the wild. Led by Meiburg’s bronze voice, which builds from a timid whimper to a seething, diamond-cutting wail, the band conjured a mighty racket that kept the audience on its toes. The band closed the show with the Palo Santo standout “Hail Mary.” It built to Meiburg’s longest, most hair-raising note of the evening before erupting into a cacophony of percussion, bowed bass and blared trumpet—the type of magnificent, earned payoff the band does best.