Like Beach House, Wye Oak is a Baltimore duo that relishes in spacious moments and dark melodies. Its third full-length, Civilian (Merge), has a patient, dreamy sound, subdued to the point that it contains few revelations, at least if you’ve been paying attention to underground rock over the last five years. There are no wild aberrations, unforgettable hooks, or bizarre ambitions here.
Civilian, rather, is an album of great craft and detail. Guitarist Jenn Wasner’s breathy voice carries weight and truth, even when you can’t make out what she’s saying. At times, her guitar playing recalls the softer, folkier side of Sleater-Kinney, with its clean, single-note lines and neat arpeggios, though on tracks like the tumbleweed-bound “Civilian,” she pulls off a few fierce, abrasive lead parts.
The record is focused almost to a fault, but Wasner and her bandmate, drummer and keyboardist Andy Stack, quietly bring in unexpected sounds. “The Altar” places a Casiotone-laced hip-hop groove beneath exquisite vocals, almost like Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks.” The extreme soft-loud changeups on the foggy “Plains” would make Pixies proud. And the abusive coda of “Dog Eyes,” with its hushed vocals pressed against slow and heavy drumming, is surprising and hypnotic.
Stack plays keyboard bass lines with one hand while rocking the kit with his other limbs, and his one-man rhythm section glues the project together. It’s hard to imagine the coordination required; that Stack is able to bring variety to his playing gives Civilian the bulk of its complexity, and his sustained keyboard parts often add an otherworldly drone. Still, the songs themselves don’t quite match Wye Oak’s astral textures, and Civilian is no game-changer. But after a somber, late-night listen, it may wind its way into a few of your playlists.
Wye Oak performs with Lower Dens and Lands & Peoples 9 p.m. Friday at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. $12.