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all words: Phil Runco
all photos: Francis Chung from one of the previous times

Listening to Wye Oak’s latest record, Civilian, it’s easy to get lost in the hypnotic drift of Andy Stack’s keys and Jenn Wasner’s sleepy vocals and not fully process the full power of Wasner’s guitar.   But best believe Wasner is not going to let you underestimate its strength live.

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Wasner has never shied away from attacking her guitar, and in turn, using it as an instrument of blunt force, and in the year or so since I last saw Wye Oak, she appears to have sharpened her taste for pummeling the front half of their loud-soft dynamic.  Or at least bought some high-end effects pedals.

The Baltimore duo’s performance before a sold-out Black Cat audience on Friday was focused and often blisteringly loud. Civilian’s relatively aggressive “Hot as Day” and “Holy Holy” barbed with buzzsawing passages, but more serene songs like “The Plains” and “The Alter” were subject to fits of intense outbursts.

One of the remarkable things about those Civilian songs, though, was even as Wye Oak consistently pushed needles into the red, it went about doing so in different ways, each time going beyond a rudimentary loud-soft bait-and-switch.  The album’s material – particularly from its outstanding first half – had a rich and woozy ebb-and-flow that naturally built to louder moments, like waves cresting to smash against the shore.

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When the band dipped into 2009’s The Knot, the results were comparatively less graceful; the seams of transitions more evident.   That album’s standouts “Take It In” and set-closer “For Prayer” are still showcases for Wasner’s guitar and vocals, but they felt slightly outdated in light of the band’s recent strides.

Those vocals and guitar are reflections of each other in a way: their main appeal lies in how unguarded they are; how it feels like Wasner is channeling something primal.  And both are less hinged in the live setting.   On Friday, Wasner’s voice was huskier, and more prone to warble and float between registers

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As for part B of this equation, Stacks was typically on point, unassumingly providing a one-man rhythm section.  It’s easy to undervalue his contributions given how dynamic – and loud – a performer Wasner can be, but it’s his largely his contributions on keys and drums that distinguish Civilian’s songs.  On the title track and “Dogs Eye”, in particular, Stacks injected songs with sustained momentum.  Less straightforward but equally driving was his nimbly cascading drum pattern on “My Neighbor”.

On this first night of a month-long tour, Wasner thanked the crowd for “being here to celebrate our new records with us,” and she was right: Civilian is something to celebrate.

Accompanying Wye Oak on the first leg of the tour are fellow Baltimore natives Lower Dens, the latest vehicle of freak-folk veteran Jana Hunter.  While the rhythm section kept things loose, the band’s set was pensive, Hunter’s androgynous vocals floating above thick atmosphere and reverbed guitars.  Another promising Baltimore band who in this case – thanks to NPR – I’ll let speak for itself.

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