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Audio Reviews
Desert EP / Bay 7
by Wax & Wane
Valiant Death (2007)
Desert EP / Bay 7
As far as typography, glyphs, and logograms go, the ampersand ranks up there with the em dash, the asterisk, the interrobang, and the swing dash as one among my favourite written symbols. I may not necessarily use it all that much in my own writing (not the typed variety, at least), but I nevertheless appreciate the ampersand for its enigmatic concision—its ability to be so mysteriously squiggly and yet so easily understood. The reader sees the ampersand and automatically knows what it means; there is no conscious act of deciphering or decryption, it just is.

Similar to the matter-o’-fact comprehension of the ol’ ampersand, there are bands and musicians that one can simply “get.” Granted, this “getting” is a product of the learning experience, of acquired familiarity with a style or method of sound production and arrangement, whereby later encounters with this style, in whole or in part, cause memories to click like tumblers in a lock when prodded by their mated key. In short, it’s a matter of recognition: the sound as an emotive stand-in instantly “fits” and is understood by the listener, almost as if it were something the listener has always innately known but has never quite figured out how to express.

At the risk of sounding overtly subjective (as opposed to the usual route of subversive subjectivity), I consider Wax & Wane to be one such “getable” band. A Baltimore-based quintet with far-flung roots that extend from Maryland to Oregon and even to South Africa, Wax & Wane craft languidly folksy ballads—sleepy music that drifts and floats more than it crashes or cascades. Think acoustic guitar (both finger-picked and slide), banjo, and quiet electric guitar and organ mated to long-drawn notes from a violin, vocals that grow in force without necessarily rising in volume, percussion that is anything but bombastic, and the occasional touch of horns, woodwinds, and found sounds for good measure.

Very much a product of the Human Conduct label-cum-collective, Wax & Wane is comprised of Ari Schenck and Danny Costa of the Organ Donors, CCAS promoter and violinist Sine Jensen (also of Mr. Moccasin, Deer Tick, and Private Eleanor), Wailsounds guitarist Justin Kwash, and Yukon’s own Nick Podgurski. While rarely performing as a full quintet (due to geography and time constraints, some performances are limited to de facto leader Ari Schenck and his guitar), when the five musical minds of Wax & Wane do take the time to get together, the result is magic. Quiet, reserved magic, and a product of many minds speaking with one soft voice.

As evidenced in their two most recent studio releases—the Desert 10” EP and the Bay 7”—the members of Wax & Wane pride themselves on subtlety and texture. The vocal harmonies, reserved drumwork, low-lying guitar chords, and central violin melody of Desert intro “At Night” are reminiscent of the dry swish and scrape of wind-blown leaves, the light tap of rain on the hood of a car punctuated by the rush of passing traffic, and the faint swelling and breaking of waves against a nearby shore. Similarly, the combination of droning strings and crashing brass in “Blood is Throat” is infused with a sense of obscured nostalgia, an unmet need for something as unreachable as it is ineffable.

Like the melancholic “Dark Times” implies, the music of Wax & Wane reveals a “taste for certain spaces,” for images and locales as touchstones to a time long-since gone. While navel-gazing ruminations on loss and loneliness are hardly a new or novel motif for poets or musicians of any variety, the paradoxical combination of emptiness and freedom is undeniably palpable in the plodding percussion, stirring melody, doubled vocals, and barely-audible chords of “Road’s Alter.” Album-ending track “Whistler,” then, is the inevitable coming to terms—bent notes, a rasping whistle, and slow, country twang as heralds to the promise of a new day.

Where Desert dwells predominantly on emotional desolation, Bay is its geographic and thematic opposite. Featuring added percussion by Karl Blau of K Records, Bay is, at times, lush, fluid, and shimmering—chimes, keys, and woodwinds, oh my!

As heard in opening track “My Friend Gene,” Wax & Wane’s vocal reins have been largely turned over to Sine’s quiet lilt (the song is a duet, true, but Sine’s male counterpart is mixed too low to be readily perceptible), with the melodies given to an electric guitar where once they were carried by a violin. “My Nose” throws yet another compositional curveball, with what sounds like a vibraphone laying claim to the central melody while oft-subdued guitar chords, low-end woodwind, and the quiet snap-thud of snare and kick quietly keep pace.

Even so, “Where Were You?” falls back to the somber reminiscence of Desert—Ari’s whispering mumble set front and center, Sine’s violin hovering in the background with an organ-like drone and miscellaneous percussion while Nick’s palpitating drumwork is left to scrape things steadily along. In a nice studio touch, gull calls crop up now and again as a literal reminder of the album’s aquatic title.

Generally speaking, Wax & Wane create music to think to. It is music as memory, clear and personal, and my only complaint is that there is not enough of it. Then again, that might very well be the point—no sense in dwelling on something that is so easily understood, right?
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (October 25th, 2007)

Tags: audio, review, wax & wane, desert, bay, valiant death