Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs: Did you say that life could be better? Or do you only live to be seen as such?

Artist: Wye Oak
Album: The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs
Year: 2018
Grade: B+

In Brief: While it’s tricky to categorize genre-wise, this album manages to be equal parts energizing, soothing, and challenging, thanks to the dynamic of intricate percussion, stunning synths and keyboards, and occasionally noisy guitars that this duo has going for them. And digging into their cryptic lyrics reveals a bit of existential angst tempered with wisdom and patience. File this one under “How did I not know that this band existed for the last four albums?!”


If I told you I’d been listening to a band from Baltimore, comprised of just two members, a man and a woman, with the woman on lead vocals and both of them handling a fair amount of instrumental duties, who would you think I was talking about? If you’re into indie or dream pop music, you’d probably say Beach House. And yes – they put out a pretty good album this year, which I’ve already covered in another review. But this time I’m talking about Wye Oak, which is more of a band in the indie rock/electropop vein, but they’re honestly a bit difficult to classify, likely as a result of several course corrections to their sound over the years resulting in their latest album, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, being a pretty interesting mish-mash of musical ideas. The band from the Eastern seaboard that actually came to mind when Wye Oak was first recommended to me was Sylvan Esso, a duo who makes more explicitly synth-driven dance music along with some experimental, ambient stuff. (My confusion with Sylvan Esso member Nick Sanborn‘s other stage name, Made of Oak, is what led me to initially give Wye Oak a try, actually.) They share a home state in common with Wye Oak’s lead singer Jenn Wasner, who currently makes her residence in North Carolina, while her musical partner Andy Stack, a man not only capable of playing the drums and keyboards, but who can even do both at once in their live performances (!), currently resides in Texas. Apparently they’ve made their last few albums by way of remote collaboration, so Baltimore’s really only a reference point when considering the band’s earlier days. If you’re looking for more apt musical comparisons that aren’t as tied to a specific location, I’d definitely say that St. VincentMetric, Phantogram, and even a teeny bit of Björk would be applicable here. They’ve got a style that is reasonably accessible to new listeners, and yet I find it difficult to classify the sound that they make. All I can say for sure is that the band’s fifth album, the first one of theirs that I’ve ever listened to, has grown on me more and more over the past few months, to the point where I’d actually consider it one of the most enjoyable indie releases of the year.

Now, don’t confuse my use of the word “accessible” with “pedestrian”. While I think the average pace and texture of a song on this album would make it seem more mid-tempo and melodic at the outset, there are a few jagged edges and more experimental moments you won’t see coming, as well as a few tracks that hit you right out of the gate with some downright bizarre percussion sequences. This is a band that is at once slick enough to grab a slot on an “indie bands we really wish would cross over and find some mainstream pop success” sort of playlist, and defiant enough to not really care if a song they put out obliterates someone’s previous categorization of them. At times that can make the flow of this record a bit weird, but with as many high-quality songs as they stack up throughout this record’s 12 tracks, I really can’t complain much about that. A lot of times it’s definitely the percussion that comes to the forefront, which explains the easy appeal to this particular listener, but it seems to be just as often a live drum kit as a pre-programmed loop, maybe both in tandem. Whether heavenly keyboards or angular guitars are going to dominate a particular track also seems up for grabs, though as the album drifts into its mellower second half, it’s more often the former. As songwriters and composers, Jenn and Andy seem to have a real gift for disarming pop hooks, but they’re also self-aware enough to know when to throw a curveball into an otherwise easygoing song structure. Aside from maybe one or two tracks that don’t really hit the spot for me, this is a pretty winning combination – I never feel like they’re dumbing it down for a wider audience, even though a part of me is kind of baffled at how they remained underexposed enough for me to not have heard of them until now.

Summing up the lyrical focus of The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs is no easy task. This is one of those records where the lyrics often strike me as smart, but as I dig into them, I find myself realizing they’re pretty elliptical. That’s not a knock on their songwriting skills at all. A quick peek at Genius.com reveals comments from Jenn Wasner on every song indicating a very specific idea she had in mind for it. It just isn’t always a meaning that would come to my mind when listening to those songs in a vacuum, as I have been for most of the last few months before finally breaking down and taking a look at the Genius cheat sheet. I think there’s a lot of value in fans coming up with their own interpretations, or even vague impressions, of what these songs could be about, that isn’t diminished at all by finding out the band had something very different in mind. That is to say, there’s a very open-ended nature to the way they tend to write lyrics, where you can tell a song’s confused or affirming or angry or serene even if you’re not sure what a lot of the individual words are getting at. I’d say I listen to this one more for those contrasting moods and those wonderful melodies, than I do to just plain rock out or to ponder how profoundly deep the meanings of the songs might be. The depth is there for those who want to pursue it, but the songs aren’t so dense that you need extensive liner notes just to get a sense of what the hell’s going on. And I appreciate how, even while the songwriters appear to be dealing with some rather tricky existential quandaries here, there seems to be a lot of grace and solace that they’ve found in not knowing how it all works yet, in being content simply to live another day and turn the page and see what happens.

So, yeah… there’s a lot of potential meaning that the listener could project onto Wye Oak’s music that may or may not have been intended. Your experience will likely vary from mine a great deal. Regardless, I think it’s an experience worth having, even if you approach this record with a completely different mindset from my own.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. (Tuning)
This is really just the sound of a piano getting into tune, as the title would suggest. It’s a bit of a weird motif that occurs a couple times later in the album. This in no way prepares you for what’s to come.
Grade: N/A

2. The Instrument
The first time this song’s clattering rhythm got started up, and the synths came bubbling up through it, I was mystified. I loved the sound of it right away, but the time signature had be thoroughly confused – and that’s saying a lot for someone who pays very close attention to irregular time signatures. The guitar seems to noodle around on variations of the same chord during the verses, and both that and Jenn’s vocals seem to be doing their own thing counter to the rhythm at first. This song felt incredibly loose and messy to me, and I just couldn’t keep up, until about the third time through, when it finally clicked that the drum track was looping in patterns of 14 – 3, 3, 4, 4. A normal 7/8 rhythm usually alternates between 4 and 3 so that you can tell where they’re lopping off an eight note. So I have to immediately give them some points for ingenuity here, as well as the clever way they use the guitar and vocal to throw the listener off the scent. While that insane rhythm is the biggest draw, I also love the squealing keyboard melody that cries out above it all, the way that the sparse vocal melody turns a corner into a rather breathlessly sung chorus, and the bizarre lyrics that seem to be about an out-of-body experience. Apparently trying to look at herself the way others see her led Jenn to have a revelation that if external approval is all she’s living for, she’s never fully going to be confident in herself and love herself. That’s what the stinging criticisms like “You only live to be seen as such” ultimately add up to – a song that kicks your butt into gear and motivates you to be less of a passive people-pleaser. I’m floored by this song every time I listen to it.
Grade: A+

3. The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs
The first thing I ever heard from Wye Oak was an acoustic version of this song, which even in its quieter form, had a pretty hypnotic drum beat and some really interesting interplay between the guitar and keyboards, which again seemed to be doing their own rhythmic thing in the background, almost fighting the main beat of the song but all of it swirling together into a satisfying hole. I figured I had to hear what this original album version sounded like, fully programmed and plugged in – and I’m definitely not disappointed. The drum loop is certainly the main hook of the song, while the twinkly synths and shifting bass chords during that long build-up to the first verse milk the anticipation for all it’s worth. Jenn’s voice is quite beautifully layered in the studio version – it comes across as a blurry, heavenly harmony, sort of inverting the usual pattern in pop songs where the verse is there to lead into a big chorus hook, since here it’s the verse that hits the glorious high notes and finds the melody swooping and soaring, and the chorus is more subdued and staccato, with Jenn’s guitar squiggling all over it, St. Vincent style. The song seems to be about some sort of vague, ominous, distant goal or threat – depending on your interpretation, it could be something you’re chasing that keeps receding away from you the harder you try to pursue it, or it could be something scary that is chasing you, closing in little by little as you cry in vain for help. The two members of the band had contrasting interpretations of the title phrase, so I guess the song was written to serve either meaning depending on whether you see the glass half empty or half full.
Grade: A

4. Lifer
This is, hands-down, the most gorgeous song on the album. It seems pretty straightforward, from the basic chord progression on the keyboard that opens it up, but the lead guitar melody is so beautifully textured, and Jenn’s voice is disarmingly pretty here, equal turns sorrowful and optimistic. I believe this started out as a song she was writing to encourage someone who was perhaps struggling with suicidal thoughts, or who  had at the very least just sort of checked out on doing anything meaningful with their life, to encourage them change was still possible and there was still some aspect of the outcome that they could control. It ended up being more of a message to herself, which is why the lyrics are pointed inward, revealing more of a disappointment and regret with herself and a vow to boldly take the reins instead of living a sad, half-assed life. Just when you get used to the soothing pace of this song – mellow but breezing by at a pretty brisk pace, suddenly she drops in a blistering electric guitar solo in the middle eight, which sets the band up perfectly for a rousing final chorus. Damn near brings me to tears every time. (I’m not the biggest fan of the “piano tuning” gimmick coming back for an interlude to lead into the next track here – it’s a bit of a buzzkill whenever this song comes up on shuffle or in a playlist. But that’s a really petty complaint that I won’t hold against an otherwise amazing song.)
Grade: A+

5. It Was Not Natural
A slight downside to Wye Oak’s tendency to play around with time signatures and the listener’s perception of them is that sometimes the hook of a song will suffer a bit from their need to subvert what flows naturally and cram a few extra words or notes on. That’s most clear on the chorus of this aptly titled song, in which the title of this song, “It was not natural”, hits a beautiful high note, but then the melody just sort of meanders while the piano pounds away on the next, overly long line: “Only human hate could give us something so unforgiving”. Sometimes this line or part of it is repeated just to pound the “unnaturalness” of it into our skulls a bit more. This has to be intentional, but it feels a bit like self-sabotage, and this track was released as a single, so again I think they’re hoping we’ll be disarmed enough by a strong verse melody to not mind the chorus being a little off-kilter. The squealing, rainy-day angst of the guitars and the interesting use of sampling are certainly highlights here – Andy doesn’t ust give you drum fills, he backmasks them and plays them over the live drums just to add to the disorienting nature of the song. The lyrics once again seem to find a person looking at themselves from a distance and not liking what they see, but this time around, giving in to a person’s most basic urge to make themselves happy doesn’t seem to be the solution, because it leads to greed and hate and a lack of consideration for others. (I’m guessing. Like I said, a lot of these songs are incredibly open-ended.)
Grade: B

6. Symmetry
We’ve been in mid-tempo mode for the last three tracks, so it’s time to rock out again… in more of a robotic, neurotic, St. Vincent sort of way. Yeah, this is the track that I think a lot of critics were tempted to compare to St. Vincent, and I can see why. Jenn’s vocals are more sultry here, the synths are laid on much thicker, providing yet another off-kilter time signature for the song to follow (which in this case is a relatively more conventional take on 7/8), and the guitars and keyboards and other sampled effects are making a hell of a lot of noise, making this a dizzying wall of sound akin to one of the noisier tracks on Masseduction. What’s different here is that Wye Oak isn’t a band I’d describe as “provocative”, at least not in the sexual sense. They’re more concerned with issue of black and white, right and wrong here, pointing out the human brain’s habit of wanting to sort everything into those two bins and being uncomfortable with the ambiguous grey areas in between. I like that the chorus has her crying out for order like some sort of a futuristic drill sergeant, even though the music is only “orderly” in the sense that a restless artistic type could appreciate. Symmetry implies a duality to everything, so the choice of an irregular beat here that doesn’t resolve to an integer divisible by 2 has to be a bit of a troll, right? At least that’s how I see it. There’s a moment in the pre-chorus here where I wouldn’t blame you for getting the melody confused with the chorus of “The Instrument”, so I’ll give some slight minus points for sort of repeating themselves here. Still, this song stands on its own as something abrupt, sinister, and troubling, and I love it for all of those things.
Grade: A-

7. My Signal
This would be “the Björk song”. I mean, you’re not going to confuse Jen Wasner’s vocal affectations with the eccentric Icelander any time soon, but the utter lack of rhythm, the little snippets of lyrical thought as she cries out for human connection slowly echoing into the darkness, and the little flurries of strings (both bowed and plucked) make it sound more like the kind of artsy tone poem you’d hear deep in the recesses of a record like Medúlla or Utopia. The atmosphere of it actually feels a bit damp, if that makes any sense. As much as I love Björk, that’s not really my favorite aspect of her music, so I’ll admit to being a bit bored with this one. It’s a complete fish out of water in between two very engaging, up-tempo tracks that otherwise would have segued pretty well from one to the other. It’s only a minute and a half long, though – unlike Björk, Wye Oak can at least figure out how not to overstay their welcome with this sort of thing.
Grade: C+

8. Say Hello
This song makes its setting pretty clear – “I had to pass through rain clouds three times”, “Five hundred aerial miles to go”, etc. It takes place aboard a plane, which I guess for Jenn, is a good place to ponder how staggeringly small she is on the grand scale of the universe. (Me, I’m usually too busy just bracing myself and hope for no turbulence.) This one’s got an interesting mix of moods – the guitars and percussion give it a fast, driving pace, but the melody and texture of it are incredibly smooth and easygoing – it’s definitely more on the “pop” side of the indie rock spectrum. And it took me a while to realize it, but this is actually one of the album’s highlights, due to how effectively the vocals and all of the accompanying instrumental layers gradually ascend into the stratosphere, leading to a euphoric outpouring of sound in the bridge. The song ends on a somewhat nihilistic, yet peaceful note: “I want to tell the girl next to me/That there is no such thing as truth/It is hard to admit you were all wrong/Accept some things are not for you.”
Grade: A-

9. Over and Over
I’d consider this track to be Exhibit A when trying to explain why I’m not 100% comfortable classifying Wye Oak as an “electronic rock” or “synthpop” sort of band. The synthesizers are definitely there, but they don’t provide the main rhythmic thrust of the song, which in this case comes from a rather loud an assertive performance on the old drum kit, definitely one of Andy Stack’s finest moments on the album. The rhythm has a mock parade-like sort of march to it, almost as if you could picture a brass section oom-pah-pah-ing along with it, except that there is no such thing. Jenn’s vocals are really washed out here, as if they’ve been run through some sort of a filter that gives them a bit of an icy chill. That’s fitting, since the song is about the cold detachment of watching world events play out on a small hand-held screen, being in disbelief at all the death and destruction that gets repackaged as infotainment, as if “let’s see what awful things have happened in the world today” has become just another thing to check off of the daily to-do list. The way this song falls apart at the end is somewhat abrupt and weird, but it makes for an incredibly smooth segue into…
Grade: B+

10. You of All People
…OH MY GOD I AM MELTING. This song couldn’t sound more different than the one it comes bleeding in from, but WOW, those synths are gorgeous. I love how they just float there, mechanical yet buzzing with curiosity, throughout the entire song, while the guitars are drenched in reverb and the entire song seems to shimmer. This feels like one of the most cryptic songs on the album – as drawn in as I am by Jenn’s singing, I had a hard time making much headway with the lyrics. The opening verse piques my curiosity like nothing else: “They will make mistakes with us/Confuse the artist with their work/And hold the pattern up to the light/To see how much a life is worth.” There’s some sort of existential dilemma playing out here, in which she’s trying to determine whether a person exists as more than just the sum of the visual, audible, and other physical signals they send out to others, and perhaps she’s trying to convince herself that there’s more to it than just a bunch of random chemical interactions with no grand design behind it all. But I haven’t figured out how the chorus – which is really just the title along with some incredibly lovely “Oh, oh, oh”s – fits into it all. It is by far the most soothing song on the record, though.
Grade: A

11. Join
I consider this to be “the folk song” of the album. That may sound like a weird thing to say when its most noticeable elements are electric guitar, light drums, and synths bleeping and blooping all over the place, like a subtler version of how The Fiery Furnaces would react to the realization that one of their songs came out too “pop”. It’s just the cadence of the drums and the delicate way that Jenn fingerpicks the guitar – I could just as easily imagine them sitting around a campfire playing this one with only acoustic instruments. The need for human connection seems to be competing with an introvert’s tendency to be a loner and not want to bother people here. Interestingly, I don’t think the word “join” ever actually appears in the lyrics, so it took me a while to figure out the significance of that title. This is another lovely performance, though it might suffer a bit for being one of several mellower songs buried late in the album, and for having such a brief “chorus” (if you could even consider it that) that it’s not as likely to be noticed as some of the more hook-driven songs around it. Having said that, I find it really interesting how many of Wye Oak’s songs seem to have a stronger melody in the verse than the chorus. It’s almost like they want the verse to be the hook while the chorus section acts as more of a bridge. It reminds me that the song structure is meant to serve the songwriter, and not the other way around.
Grade: B+

12. I Know It’s Real
The awkwardness of never getting fully comfortable with a song’s rhythm comes back around on the closing track, but not in a fun way unfortunately. “The Instrument” and “Symmetry” were fun because once I zeroed in on the patterns inherent in those songs, I found the devious grooves to be quite infectious. Slower songs that attempt time signature weirdness by branching of from a standard 4/4 seemingly whenever the hell they feel like it, I tend to appreciate a lot less regardless of who is doing them. So my minor complaint from “It Was Not Natural” becomes a major one on this piano-based ballad, during which the drums seem to shuffle their feet in search of a groove that they never find, and the whole thing becomes a dreary affair, on a track that paradoxically seems to drag on too long while also coming to a close too suddenly to really convince me that this was the right note to end an album on. The struggle to find a firm set of beliefs that one doesn’t constantly have to question or re-evaluate seems to come to the forefront here, perhaps in deliberate contrast to some of the more nihilistic thoughts expressed in a few of the other songs. I really wish it packed more of a punch, but the melody and overall flow of it seem to meander all over the place despite it having a pretty well defined verse/chorus structure. There just isn’t any melodic or instrumental part that really jumps out at me here – it’s a woozy, grey mess of a song that ends up being the rare stumble on an otherwise highly consistent record.
Grade: C-

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
(Tuning) / The Instrument $2
The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs $1.75
Lifer $2
It Was Not Natural $1
Symmetry $1.50
My Signal $.25
Say Hello $1.50
Over and Over $1.25
You of All People $1.75
Join $1.25
I Know It’s Real $0
TOTAL: $14.25

BAND MEMBERS:
Jenn Wasner: Vocals, guitars, bass
Andy Stack: Drums, keyboards, backing vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
https://www.wyeoakmusic.com/
https://www.facebook.com/wyeoak/

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