by ANDREW MATSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ye Oak -- named after the iconic Maryland tree that was thought to be the largest white oak in America (until it blew over in 2002) -- is a bold signifier for an unassuming-looking Baltimore two-piece rock band, conjuring as it does the giant tree's regal presence and classic, comfortable iconoclasm. The Wye Oak's thick, knotted branches shoot out from its Keebler Elf trunk like purple snakes licking a house-sized plasma lamp.
One of nature's majestic institutions, the Wye Oak projects unkillable vibes -- it's an Ansel Adams lithograph, ton-of-bricks heavy and snowflake intricate. As you apprehend its sheer size, you apprehend its wild design, and the combination hits dignified and audacious.
From glorious guitar walls ("Please Concrete") to banshee strings ("Family Glue") to scruffy pop ("Warning"), Wye Oak the band hits all the right notes to please lovers of what modern people call "indie rock." Frontwoman Jenn Wasner supplies unaffected singing and Andy Stackall backs her up; their vocal attack -- faint, but assured -- is a dead-ringer for the plainsung, anti-star style of Yo La Tengo.
Studio recordings (check www.myspace.com/wyeoak) show Wye Oak has an ear for texture -- feedback washes, guitars noodle, cymbals whoosh -- but the band also knows how to lose all that jazz in a live setting and get minimal with hard strums and deliberate drums. Dressed up or stripped down, Wye Oak's immediately engaging pop rock has nothing to do with most of what's on the radio.
Miles removed from the Clear Channel sound wherein every track is compressed and jacked up to assault the listener, Wye Oak prefers to let its music speak for itself; the band's melodious gems wrap you up, rather than blowing you away.
Wye Oak's music is timeless for the same reason as the Beatles' and, for that matter, Guided By Voices' -- the hooks are winning and the presentation is pointedly sans fashion. Expressing a profound lack of populist concern, Wye Oak's songs are what ought to be popular but will always be respected: youthful pop rock with zero artistic concessions.
Parking their 2003 Honda Odyssey near a wi-fi connection in Jacksonville, Jenn and Andy were kind enough to answer e-mailed questions.
Are you from The Wire part of Baltimore?
Jenn: Yes, Andy and I are both drug kingpins.
Andy: Yes, if you mean the part of Baltimore that watches The Wire on DVD.
What's Baltimore like for a young, cool rock band?
Andy: Wait -- we're cool?
Jenn: Baltimore rules. It ain't perfect, but it's home. The music scene is incredible right now, too.
Is being on Merge Records [Arcade Fire, Spoon] the fulfillment of a lifelong dream? How did that relationship come about?
Jenn: Yes, working with Merge is an amazing opportunity -- and one that we never expected to have presented itself so early in our musical careers. So many of our favorite bands and albums have been associated with them, and it's hard to believe that we're in this position. The basic story is that our music was reviewed on idolator.com, a music blog that Mac from Merge happened to read, and he got in touch with us asking for some recordings. We sent them over, and after a few months, Merge asked us if we'd like to work with them. We're still completely amazed at how it all came together that way -- we never thought it would be that quick and simple. Needless to say, we're honored to be working with Merge, and they've been amazingly kind and welcoming to us throughout the whole process.
Your songs are so melodic, so essentially tuneful, that they wear drone-y screechy noise without much effort. I read something one of you said to that effect, but can you elaborate?
Andy: We're always quoted as saying something to this effect: If the songs are strong enough, they can survive any number of arrangements. It's become a bit of a mantra for us -- something that we use to explain the disparity between our recordings and our live performances.
"Warning" = perfect song (love the seemingly too-soon big drum hits). It reminds me a lot of Yo La Tengo's "Sugarcube," another fuzzy anthem. Do you hear it?
Jenn and Andy: "Sugarcube" is one of our favorite songs, and YLT is one of our favorite bands. Thank you!
On "Family Glue," where did those wild strings come from?
Jenn: Our friend Sine Jensen, who has played in several bands back in Baltimore, is a great violinist and was kind enough to help us realize our stringy-vision for that song. I wrote that song several years ago, and I had always imagined it with a violin featuring prominently in the arrangement. That kind of definite arrangement idea rarely happens so organically, so I knew we needed to stick to it.
Andy: Violin is the one instrument that Jenn and I didn't play on the record, and we're not used to having to translate our ideas to someone else, but working with Sine made it easy!
What recorded sounds do you have trouble recreating live?
Andy: The experience of seeing music performed live, and the energy and emotion that goes with it, hopefully compensates for the bells and whistles found on the recordings. Our motto that we mentioned earlier certainly applies here.
The live drumming is done one-handed, is that correct?
Andy: Yes, that's right. I play keys with my left hand while drumming to fill out the live arrangements and go for more of a three-piece sound. We're also experimenting more with audio loops and other possibilities for layering and texturing.
Weird to me that you are playing with Norfolk & amp; Western (Portland band) in Seattle and Velella Velella (Seattle band) in Portland. Love those bands, especially Velella. Any memorable show pairings this tour? Great bands you didn't know about and then played with?
Andy: We're so excited about our Northwest shows! This whole tour was put together by our booking agent, Jeremy Hadley, who books a big roster of bands including Norfolk & amp; Western and plays in VV. Our trip out west was planned as a chance to finally meet him and some of the other bands on the Invisible City roster. We're looking forward to playing with all of them!
Wye Oak with Musee Mechanique at the Whitworth HUB on Thursday, Jan. 24, at 8 pm. Free for Whitworth students; $5 for everyone else. Call 777-1000.