Having befriended each other during their high school years, Baltimore duo Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack merged their growing pains and musical affinities into a fledgling outfit, originally performing under the name of Monarch, which was later abandoned in favour of a patriotic nod to their fallen State tree. Surviving past the graduation benchmark, the duo released their debut album If Children independently in 2007, with a re-release the following year under the wing of their current label, Affairs Of The Heart. While some found If Children vaguely disappointing, criticising its lack of vocal conviction, the preview track from this second effort hinted at an improvement that The Knot as a whole decidedly confirms.
Remaining true to their original sound, the album is awash with clouds of guitar distortion, tuned and manipulated into crashing sonic ramparts and embellished with cool blues licks. Wasner conduits emotions directly through her Fender with endearing honesty, and it’s rare to hear rock guitar played with such authentic revelation, yet there’s a discernable fatality in her raw and often pain-filled wailings. Her much-improved smoky grey alto shines through, too, with bell-clear notes of Kim Deal and Hope Sandoval’s lonesome reflections and an almost nonchalant grace that sits hauntingly at odds with the obviously heartfelt subject matter. The Knot’s title is a direct reference to the album’s underlying concept – our ties to other people and how they define our own experiences. Like knots, these connections can provide comfort and support or unwanted and harmful bindings; the album expresses the complexity of these kinships with exquisite cognition.
A large crank of the volume dial is needed to avoid the initial droning quality that blankets The Knot’s arrangements if played too quietly, with all the subtle guitar twangs drowned like hidden pearls in the underwater of sliding distortion and cymbal rain. However, not one song falls short of perfected care, with injuries and joy explored with equal unrestraint. ‘Mary Is Mary’ wallows in jealously with dark, questioning wonder, while ‘That I Do’ uses silences and rhythm to great effect, casting the angst of unequal love in a dangerously sexy light. Elsewhere, ‘Siamese’ stands out for its ambiguous lyrics and familiar sounding, feelgood melody, while ‘Sight, Flight’ captures Wye Oak’s signature ambivalence with disarmingly fatalistic lyrics sweeping over a moderate, unfussy composition, ending with a blur of sound curtailed into a single mournful yet sharp violin note.
An original duo, drawing from a uniquely genuine perspective, Wye Oak have grown into a band to treasure. The Knot sees them perfecting a style, perhaps misinterpreted on their first effort, with finesse and weight.
[Affairs Of The Heart; August 31, 2009]