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Wye Oak Showcases Dreamy New Tunes at the El Rey

Wye Oak Fender
It’s hard to not fall in love with Wye Oak when the Baltimore twosome is on stage.  Not only are Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack musically enchanting, but there is an air of intimacy when seeing one of their shows.

Thursday night at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles was a perfect example, as Wye Oak was in town supporting their latest albumShriek.

“This audience has really turned my day around in a lot of ways,” said Wasner midway through the set. “It can be weird doing what we do.  We love it, but it’s weird.  It’s times like this that we understand why.”

The L.A. crowd that came out enjoyed the Merge Records artists’ dreamy rock standards, driven by Stack’s mind-bending act of simultaneously drumming and playing keys and Wasner’s smoky voice.

This is an interesting time to see Wye Oak.  After nearly a decade of putting out guitar-driven tunes, the band took quite another direction.

It started with Stack’s move from their homebase of Charm City to Portland after the release of 2011’s Civilian.  At the same time, Wasner, who stayed back in Baltimore, was toying with the idea of abandoning her six-string muse altogether, instead focusing on a Fender Mustang Bass as the instrument of choice.

What came out of the emailed back-and-forth snippets of songs was a 10-track reinvention of Wye Oak’s sound.

“I sort of fell to the ground in relief and excitement,” she said of her infatuation with the bass on Shriek. “I didn’t want this band to end, but I knew that we needed something new to make us excited about it again.  I felt like I had cheated the system. We had found a way to be the same band and yet be totally different, sonically and compositionally, within that framework of our band.”

The simple beauty of a two-person band was still there, but with it also came something that felt dangerous, dark even. The fierce and fiery spirit of Wye Oak existed, but chunky basslines replaced a lot of the gnashing guitar strums that led some of their earlier hits.

At the El Rey, Wye Oak toed the line of old and new.

“Before,” “The Tower” and “Shriek” – all fresh offerings – led the proceedings, as the audience swayed back and forth and gazed into the minimalistic lighting.

But soon, Wasner traded out the bass for a guitar and tore into “Holy Holy,” which woke everyone up as she thrashed into the song’s epic breakdown.

Stack picked up a bass during “Spiral,” an adventure that took the listener down a wormhole of a riff while Wasner’s vocal echoed all around the venue, marking a definite highlight of the evening.

Another one was “For Prayer,” a slow-churner that comes off Wye Oak’s 2009 album, The Knot.  Stack established a chilled-out march for the open before Wasner unleashed the fury with a few swipes at her axe.

At the end of the night, it was clear that Wye Oak had a strong handle on where they were going.  The groove-based direction thatShriek demonstrated still has roots in the group’s past, with Wasner’s charming presence and Stack’s ethereal beats serving as a solid foundation.

A step forward was welcome, and on Thursday night, it was all hypnotizing.

Jenn Wasner Fender

Andy Stack Fender

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