Wye Oak's third album, Civilian, begins with the sound of a far-off conversation. It could be a party or a concert; we don't hear enough to make out anything specific. The drone of an organ can be heard about 10 seconds in, and while it slowly becomes louder, the crowd gets drowned out. The first words we hear out of lead singer Jenn Wasner are, "Two small deaths happened today while I was at work."
It's a pretty fair assessment of Wye Oak: They're killing the competition. In a crowded indie rock field, they've managed to stand out, releasing a string of quality records and becoming one of the finer touring bands out there, to which everyone who saw them open for The Decemberists in January at the Beacon Theatre can attest.
Wasner, whose smoky vocals remain one of indie's most seductive sounds, and bassist/drummer/everything else Andy Stack make a gorgeous amount of noise for just two people. The group's previous albums, If Children and The Knot, were relatively bare efforts, at least compared to Civilian; it's reminiscent of the evolution Wilco took from A.M. to Being There, right down to the country-tinged dread hovering above the songs.
Two of the central themes of the album are, in Wasner's words, "loneliness" and "letting go," and it's pretty obvious. It's a regretful record, with lyrics often in the past tense ("I wanted to love you…"), matched by random bursts of feedback and power. The band has also added more layers of guitars, resulting in a much richer, hazier sound, alternating from shoegaze ("Holy Holy") to ballad-turned-"Cowgirl in the Sand" guitar freakout ("Civilian") to the staticky "Hot as Day." One of the highlights, "We Were Wealth," again in the past tense, begins slowly before erupting in an explosion of haunting noise—but Wasner keeps things leveled. She's in the eye of the hurricane, standing still while the rest of the world swirls around her.
The album's minimalist closer, "Doubt," could act as both an alternate album title and the sequel to Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah," right down to the same, spare sound. Civilian is actually in many ways a sister to big brother Grace; both are ferociously depressing and heartbreakingly honest records, but while Buckley occasionally drifted into melodrama, Wye Oak never does. Rather, they make isolation sound inviting.