Even before this release, Baltimore natives Wye Oak had quickly ascended my personal list of favorite artists. With this, they cement themselves into the most rarified air of my all-time beloved musicians. All the pitfalls you hear and fear of the sophomore album are utterly non-existent as Jenn and Andy make a strong and organic thrust forward with The Knot (the first truly new album since signing to North Carolina-based Merge Records about a year and a half ago). They provide strong evidence that traditional songwriting has plenty of life left in it (take that leftfield and avant-garde!).
The thing that makes The Knot so grand is that it is a natural polishing of all the facets of their debut gem If Children. Jenn’s soaring vocals and big-riff, crashing guitars, Andy’s finessed drumming and mysterious, warm synth work, all these see some fantastic maturation. The interplay of all these elements becomes even more awe-inspiring in the context of a wider range of peaks and valleys, expansions and contractions. These elements give their sound a fresh sense of cavernous space and epic proportion that makes If Children appear almost claustrophobic by comparison.
The opening volley of “Milk and Honey” is laden with warm and rich drones lapping at your ears like eager tides. A little over halfway in, the water starts to whitecap as huge waves wash over you. A great intro track that sets the pace for the 40-odd minutes of crushingly beautiful music you are about to experience. The enormous “For Prayer” follows, a track which has been in live rotation for quite some time now. Yet after so many listens, it still knocks you over with its power. The plaintive vocal and pedal steel melodies are the perfect embodiment of that sucker-punch to the gut so indicative of regret. Then, Jenn comes to her senses amidst the throes of bold, cathartic guitar solos. This duality of dynamics is one of Wye Oak’s signatures that pervades their music, and lends it much of its engrossing quality.
“Take It In” swallows you in its massive swirls of pedal steel and guitars, the thrashing frustrations that complement the resigned acceptance in Jenn’s sweetly-sung vocals. The eerily twinned, reverberating vocals of “Siamese” phase in and out along with darting strings and death-knell strums, bridging the gap between the coasting verses and steadily driving guitar lines. Rarely are macabre and woe so haunting and resplendent all at once.
The balladic “Mary Is Mary” is a phenomenal showcase for all that Wye Oak does so well. Every note seems to linger like fingers trailing along the skin. Jenn’s airy vocals and coasting guitars. Each strike of Andy’s drumming feels weighted and exhausting, while still softly trilling off the edges. The entire track is filled with absolutely brilliant lament, and is one of a handful of songs I would consider truly epic in both aspiration and execution. The uptempo “Tattoo” is a great juxtaposition, almost gospel-like with its sweeping choral vocals and a prime example of the bigger spaces that Wye Oak are now creating. The doomsaying crunch and psych wail of Wasner’s guitar grounds her lofty vocals on the righteously indignant “That I Do.” ”Sight, Flight” closes the album with a downtempo elegy that crescendoes the yearning violin melody until it is nearly crushed by a rising, cacophonous din of guitar and feedback. But they allow us a brief bit of respite, peeling back the squall and letting the melody breath the last tones of the album.
Wye Oak’s growth here is pretty astounding and multi-faceted. Dave Hadley’s pedal steel adds incalculable depth to Wye Oak’s already well-developed sound. Andy’s production work is top-notch, bringing in countless new layers and nuances like string arrangements and melodica, while Jenn’s vocals and guitar work have somehow become bigger, and more piercingly expressive. They also manage to breath a lot of life into their tried-and-true lyrical themes of relationships; critics who may have thought their debut was too hazy eyed and young should quickly notice a much more mature and complex outlook.
Jenn and Andy have managed to hit all the right notes with this release, crafting the perfect follow-up to a still-impressive and glimmering debut. The first listen will bowl you over; each successive one will dig deeper and deeper, the music and lyrics rooting themselves into your heart, mind, and soul. Simultaneously life-affirming and commiserating, The Knot finds Wye Oak firing on all cylinders to turn out a phenomenally mature sophomore effort. Something timeless, brilliant, and passionately conflicted. And most certainly my absolute favorite release of the past few years. Now let me end this piece before I run out of superlatives.