Review Summary: like getting lost in a dream-like haze, Civilians is as potent as it is stunning
When asked about the nature of the Civilian, Jenn Wasner, the vocalist for the duo Wye Oak, simply stated, “I believe everyone wants to be normal, but no one truly is." You get a sense that what she says about her own album is true, but it’s hard to believe that what the duo Wye Oak was trying to express was a general uneasiness, it all seems to permeate into something else, a state of foggy yet advanced alienation. It doesn’t take long for Civilian to progress to that either, the album opens with a choice sample of crowd chatter, and as a potent wave of ambience slowly rises to the surface, and the crowd chatter slowly fades beneath, you know exactly what Wye Oak is trying to express. I think we’ve all felt alone in a crowd. Though the feeling has seldom ever been this dreamy.
Jenn Wasners voice is a bruised whisper of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, and sitting on top of the dynamic yet muted shoe gaze folk that Wye Oak has almost perfected, she is perfectly at home. It’s soft and fragile, yet smoky and dangerous. The hooks are equally as entrancing. Simply stated, Jenn's vocals are an atmosphere onto them-self. Even more wonderful is how the music itself is presented; Andy Stack’s drums are hazy yet pounding in the background, isolated synths shiver in the distance, while Jenn’s guitar chords simply drift. It’s all breathtakingly spaced, and even more breathtakingly narcotic.
While the chilled warmth of the loneliness is the essence and the soul of Civilian, It’s when everything falls apart where the album reaches its great heights. When “Dog Eyes” lucid atmosphere is split open by a shockingly violent guitar solo, it’s an awesome sight to behold. Even Andy Stacks seems unprepared for the eruption, as the percussion mutates into something as erratic as the guitar itself. When "Plains" abruptly transforms from a ghostly folk tune to entrancing keyboards, there seems to be a similar effect, yet seductively anesthetized. There only seems to be a fragile strand keeping these songs together, and often times things seem to be on the cusp of aggressively falling apart, with God knows what keeping them together. Surprisingly though the entire thing function extraordinarily well, which speaks to the talent of Wye Oaks. The entire album remarkably feels entirely realized, and when Wye Oaks reach out of that trance of a comfort zone, it works to a prodigious degree. You could suggest that it’s the paranoia starting to take a grip, but even outside of the constraints of the concept, it’s hard to deny that Jenn can simply just play the *** out of a guitar.
Plainly stated, within this album Wye Oak never lose their surreal edge. The entire album functions as a well orchestrated atmospheric experience of subtle paranoia, while simultaneously presenting it’s listener with a well done freak folk album. Wye Oak have described Civilians as their first “real record”, and just like Jenn Wasners quote in the introduction, they’re understating the fact, the tools in this album work extraordinarily well together. It’s the perfect music to get lost in, preferably in a shopping mall.