Wye Oak @ Turner Hall Ballroom
May 14, 2014
album has a narrative, and the one for Wye Oak’s Shriek was set before critics
even heard so much as a note of it. In the run up to the record, singer Jenn Wasner
revealed she’d recorded it completely without guitar, the instrument that had
until now defined the group. She spoke with Spin last fall about feeling
trapped by the instrument, crushed by the weight of its baggage, but as she
tells it trading it for a bass while passing extra keyboard duties to drummer
Andy Stack reinvigorated her, saving the band. That’s a hell of a story, though in
some ways it overstates the transformation. Despite its guitar for keyboards
swap, Shriek still feels unmistakably like a Wye Oak record. It’s a rich,
deeply textured album, filled with mysterious smoky corners and big, melodic reveals, with Wasner’s marbled voice gladly filling whatever space her guitar left behind.
What’s been lost in the swap, though, is some of the band’s disquieting intensity, and that became especially apparent Wednesday night at the band’s Turner Hall Ballroom concert, where Shriek’s coasting synths were juxtaposed against the wailing guitar of the band’s back catalog. The new material sounded fine, if not quite transportive, with the duo’s chunky bass/keyboard combo occasionally taking on echoes of The Cure that the studio didn't pick up. But the performance snapped to life whenever Wasner picked up her guitar, whether she was unleashing the terrorizing riff of “Holy Holy,” a call to attention from 2011’s Civilian, or spinning the feedback-drenched twang of “For Prayer” and “Take It In,” two loud ones from 2009’s The Knot. Wasner has spoken recently about these kinds of loud/soft guitar shifts being a gimmick, a “cheap trick,” but in her hands, at least, there’s nothing cheap about it. It’s an art, and she’s one of its true masters.
Toward the end of the set, Wasner expressed her appreciation for the crowd, telling them it wasn’t all that long ago that she thought she might never perform again. If phasing out the guitar is part of the internal compromise that allows her to keep producing music, that’s a more than fair tradeoff. But when she returned to the instrument for a couple of Civilian numbers during the encore, the album’s rumbling title track and its naked closer “Doubt,” she certainly didn’t look like a prisoner. She was in complete control, commanding it with an awesome authority few guitarists will ever experience. Watching somebody wield that kind of power, it was harder than ever to imagine why they would ever want to give it up.