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The Band Formerly Known As Monarch Goes It Together

Jefferson Jackson Steele
GETTING AHEAD: Wye Oak Recently Signed a Deal With Big-Deal Indie Label Merge Records.

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Wye Oak

By Michael Byrne | Posted 1/16/2008

Part of the reason we're drawn to rock duos--particularly romantically involved rock duos--is the threat of implosion. There's always a little extra tension going on. There's no third member to act as a blow-off valve--no mediator, no tiebreaker, and certainly no leader. Duo lore is rife with tales of near eye-gouging in the studio, tour collapses, and other fun things. Ask any nuclear physicist--amazing things come out of that intense pressure.

Or ask the young couple, Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner, who make up the local sky-gazing indie-rock duo Wye Oak. "Limitations often allow sounds and ideas to develop that may not have otherwise," Wasner writes--understatedly--from Tampa, Fla., a stop on the first leg of the band's first national tour. (After Wye Oak's Baltimore stop this week, the pair flies to the Northwest for the tour's second leg.)

And as far as being romantically involved, well, think of My Bloody Valentine's massive, quaking lovely cold-dead-place Loveless. Or Quasi divorcees Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes huffing and panting through a live set that looks like a custody battle for racket and catharsis. Yes, implosion is a brutally lovely thing.

Wye Oak hopefully won't implode anytime soon. Despite a weary/hopeful existentialism that laces their songs like Life After God microtangents, Stack and Wasner are so young--each is 21 years old--and appear so undamaged. Not undamaged in the sheltered sense--Stack and Wasner are, after all, writing songs in Baltimore--but in the sense that, well, they have an agreement with each other and the world to just let them be: Right now, Wye Oak's future looks very, very bright.

Earlier this month Stack got the e-mail that every indie-rock band hopes for. After a couple of months of courting and vaguery, Merge Records--the venerable home/ launching point of Spoon, the Arcade Fire, Destroyer, and a host of others--asked Wye Oak to join its roster.

"We just can't get any better than that," Wasner says. For now, the duo doesn't even know what it all means besides being in the company of some of the greats and having "smart and dedicated people working to promote our band so we can focus more on writing and playing music."

For now, though, Wye Oak is stuck with the old music. Merge is rereleasing Wye Oak's originally self-released (as Monarch) debut album from last year, If Children, which means what's old for them is suddenly going to be new for the rest of the country. And the duo is going to have to act the part--which will give it ample time to further hone its challenging process. Much has been made of the sound to band members ratio of Wye Oak, and justifiably so. On record the duo creates an incredibly swollen indie-and-then-some sound that funnels a whole mess of sounds--from folk to baited-hook pop--through a tight distorted daydream filter. Listening, you'd put the number of band members in the five or six range.

Even the simplest shoegazery moments of wistful guitar and voice erupt like pent-up animals, as vicious as a grizzly bear, as graceful as a swan. String arrangements, absolutely magnetic bass, guitar whorls, and vocal trades and harmonies grow vertically like they've been bumped up with an aural fertilizer. And standing on top of it--say, the rolling and building feedback-lacquered peaks of "Warning" or the gentle, hopeful ascension of "I Don't Feel Young"--is exhilarating.

It's an aesthetic that's always been a challenge to re-create live. The day before Merge announced the band's signing, Stack and Wasner were fretting about scaring the label away because the Wye Oak live show is so different from what's on the album: What if they don't like us anymore? Wye Oak live is actually not that different; it still manages to deliver the funereal drama and catharsis that makes If Children great. Stack and Wasner do much with little. Both sing, she plays guitar, and he plays both drums and keyboards--something intensely fuckupable--and the result is a pretty close approximation.

When Wye Oak started as Monarch in mid-2006, the duo played its songs in a relatively naked, acoustic form. "We spent our first few months playing music together with the knowledge that it was certainly a temporary setup and actively searching for other band members," Wasner says. "As a result of what started out as general impatience with that search, we decided to begin experimenting with the amount and variety of sound that a duo can produce. Truthfully, we never expected the duo setup to last very long beyond its original purpose as a recording project."

They no longer talk of adding members to the band, and they appear to be a remarkably comfortable unit, but how much time can you spend around one person, any person, without cracking? "Over the past couple of years we've come to realize that scheduling in personal time and alone time is just as important as scheduling practices or any other obligations," Wasner says. "Gotta stay sane." Let's hope so for now--but, honestly, the idea of a Wye Oak Loveless is a morbidly alluring one. H

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