Two-person bands have long made up for their lack of instrumental capacity with uncommon intimacy. For singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer-keyboardist Andy Stack of Baltimore indie-folk duo Wye Oak, that means making records that whisper and howl with the volatility of deep, painful secrets held between close confidants. The new Civilian continues the progress made by 2009’s excellent The Knot, bringing Wye Oak’s astral drone to blossom on a richer, fuller, and more extroverted bouquet of luminous melodies. But Civilian also carries dark revelations, with songs that reflect unflinchingly on death, loveless relationships, and the unshakable panic at humanity’s core—“a terror quiet calm,” as Wasner calls it on the ethereal, dread-inducing hymn “The Alter.” Civilian centers on that quiet terror, and like the soothing balm of a good friendship, makes it a little more palatable.
Wasner still sings like a sad-eyed choirgirl on Civilian, numbly describing haunting images of scavengers robbing the bodies of lost loved ones on the otherwise astonishingly beautiful “Two Small Deaths.” But her ghostly warble now floats atop the grabbiest songs of Wye Oak’s career, imbuing newfound majesty to the tightly coiled verses of “Hot As Day” and “Holy Holy” before releasing the tension on choruses that sound positively epic by the group’s scaled-down standards.
Stack even gets to try out his best John Bonham on the tumultuous “Dogs Eyes,” which shifts nimbly from a shimmering sashay to a lumbering, feedback-slathered stomp. Noisy aftershocks make an even more startling entrance on “Plains,” interrupting a mournful funeral march with sudden jabs of distortion and Wasner’s anguished cries. The added dynamism in Wye Oak’s music makes the prettiest passages of Civilian that much more arresting, and the demons lurking beneath them all the more real.