I mean really, at this point, what kind of music does Wye Oak even make?
Looking back at my writings on them, which have been plentiful since Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack left Baltimore to join their longtime label in Durham, I see that I’ve tried out dreampop and synth-pop, art rock and electro-rock, always capturing part of the sound but never the whole. With each release, it’s only getting harder.
No Horizon, the EP that comes out July 31 on Merge Records, is a collaboration with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus that pushes Wye Oak into unknown territory. But instead of getting lost out there, they retrieved a suite of music that’s completely what it is, with hardly a redundant moment, rising to the glittering heights of last fall’s single, “Fortune.”
Ever since the pivotal 2018 album The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, Wye Oak’s music has been easier to describe with traits than categories. It’s minimal yet majestic, experimental yet melodic, with massive basses, pressurized percussion, sculptural guitars and synths, and centerpiece vocals—in short, the kind of arty indie rock that has a credible path to Grammy consideration.
This is a world the young folks in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus know well. Distinguished in classical music, the group is also a growing concern in popular music, appearing on some of the biggest indie-your-dad-knows records of recent years: The National’s I Am Easy to Find, Bon Iver’s i,i, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest.
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus first connected with Wye Oak when both groups performed on William Brittelle’s 2019 pop-classical hybrid, Spiritual America, and then kept collaborating on their own. Wye Oak wrote a commission for the chorus, resulting in this EP, which premiered at the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York in early 2019.
All the Wye Oak traits are intact. “AEIOU” has that rangy bounce they’ve perfected, dramatic and relaxed at once. The song chugs and chimes as usual, yet the choir turns it into marching orders for jubilant angels, learning their letters at angel school. The vowels they scatter are a perfect frame for Wasner’s singing, which always seems to consist solely of round, flowing vowels, ungated by consonants.
In “No Place,” they swap places. Wasner casts spoken echoes into the choir’s windswept lead, over a consummately modern groove that nevertheless suggests the figured bass of a Baroque classical piece. “Spitting Image” makes some finger-cramping time signature feel fresh and natural, like music for skipping through puddles while it rains in the sun.
There’s no good reason for “(cloud),” a minute of guitar and synth warbles, to be here, but it doesn’t hurt, and the EP regains its unerring instinct with “Sky Witness,” a canyon-wide conclusion where the voices of Wasner and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus finally join in unison.
As the trees tap out messages in code, the lyrics concern the connection between words and the world that shapes the whole EP, which has an artistic amplitude more like the kind of art-music composer Pitchfork might write about (think Caroline Shaw, Shara Nova, and Nico Muhly, all of whom, of course, have worked with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) than any species of rock.
I mentioned the music being completely what it is. But what’s truly remarkable is that Wye Oak itself—through experimentation, collaboration, and ambition, after 15 years—is coming into that kind of uncanny focus, too.
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