Wye Oak is selling its guitars and buying synthesizers. So goes the pre-release chatter surrounding Shriek, the fourth LP from the duo of vocalist-guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer Andy Stack—but Internet talking points and online headlines are only the beginning of Shriek’s story. The album still documents the frontwoman’s nimble work on a fretboard, but she’s playing a bass this time around. And it’s not like a preference for strings over keys has ever defined Wye Oak or its members: Stack long ago perfected the art of one-armed drumming in order to flesh out the band’s live sound with his left hand and a bank of digital instruments. During the three years that passed between the release of Shriek and its masterful predecessor, Civilian, Wasner channeled her creative energies into the synth-heavy projects Flock Of Dimes and Dungeonesse.
And even the most devoted, staunchly rockist supporter of Civilian would have to acknowledge that that LP worked Wye Oak’s guitar-centric sound for all it was worth. In order to top it, the band would have to deconstruct itself, building whatever came next from remixed component parts. What emerges on Shriek is a bold, dreamy reinvention, either an album-length restatement of purpose or the coda of a remarkably consistent run conducted during indie rock’s dying gasps. Shriek’s 10 tracks evoke the warm colors of a sun split by the horizon, but the album could represent the twilight of Wye Oak just as easily as it symbolizes a new dawn.
The swan-song vibes are a product of atmosphere, not content. Following the occasionally dirge-like passages of The Knot and Civilian, Shriek is the least mournful Wye Oak effort since the band’s 2007 debut, If Children. “Before” opens the album with a bounce, while “Schools Of Eyes” is caught up in swirling organ drone. Wasner’s bass work takes much of the credit here: In the propulsive standout “Glory,” her fingers get fleet and funky while her voice flutters into falsetto; the low end in “Schools Of Eyes” has a staccato, Tina Weymouth-esque punch reinforcing the track’s Remain In Light echoes. Shriek is synthpop haze with serious percussive backbone, the thunderous clatter of Stack’s drumming often stepping up to make the noise that Wasner’s guitar isn’t.
Departures rarely sound this confident—it helps that Shriek builds off of the major songwriting strides made by Civilian. The huge chorus on “Glory” sounds like an alternate-universe radio hit, while “I Know The Law” is the first Wye Oak slow dance that wouldn’t end with both partners collapsing to the floor in a teary heap. The electronic lushness of the latter deepens the impression that Shriek is Wye Oak’s answer to Roxy Music’s Avalon, a guitar band breaking from its established sound to try something a little more ethereal and hypnagogic. Of course, Avalon is also Roxy Music’s recorded farewell; it’d be a shame if the fearlessness of Shriek didn’t receive an encore. An album that expresses “the nagging thought that I had never lived, or else forget” ought to inspire Wye Oak to keep on living—guitar or no guitar—especially one this good.