What the Folk?

April 15th, 2011

Wye Oak – The Bowery Ballroom – April 14, 2011

Identifying a band’s genre requires guesswork, drawing generalizations from assumptions. What’s heard is instinctively analyzed and distinguished. The difficulty comes when styles clash and meld, defying preordained expectations. Granted, some sounds are more recognizable than others, but really, what the hell is folk rock? After seeing Wye Oak, I’m not entirely sure.

Last night, playing before a capacity crowd, the Baltimore duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack headlined their first show at The Bowery Ballroom. Labor is divided with Wasner on guitar and vocals and Stack simultaneously balancing drums and keys. If the latter task seems difficult, that’s because it is. While Wasner is the center of the group, chatty and endearing, Stack provides stability, juggling his tasks with quiet concentration. And even though Wasner spoke for both of them, expressing gratitude and bewilderment, often saying, “I can’t believe you’re here to see us,” musically, they’re an egalitarian unit. Both contribute equally to Wye Oak.

One of the many pleasures of seeing this band live is witnessing their alchemic performance. Notions of masculinity and femininity and aggression and delicacy are recombined in song arrangements that both swell and overwhelm. Wasner’s voice, which falls somewhere in between a young Stevie Nicks’s and indie-rock contemporary Victoria Legrand’s, is powerful in a naturalistic, effortless way. In the show’s opener, “The Alter,” a song off Wye Oak’s new album, Civilian, sensuous vocals ultimately gave way to a monstrous, distorted solo. As made clear from the first song, Wasner is capable of raw, improvisational guitar work that’s as impressive as it is effective. Conversely, Stack’s light drum patterns and melodic flourishes, especially on “Civilian” and “For Prayer,” melted into choruses where brute force is favored. So while Wye Oak may be folk rock to some, it’s a sound of its own to me. —Jared Levy