When the tools of digital artmaking fell into the hands of us common folk in the ‘90s, it represented the fulfillment of a cultural prophecy articulated a couple of decades before in the catchall term postmodernism. The one certain thing that you can say about postmodernism is that no one is certain what it means; but most people would agree that it defines art as a process of referencing, recombining and recontextualizing existing artifacts, styles and fashions. What could be friendlier to that process than the capture/manipulate/replicate world of digital?
Like postmodernism, digital technology challenges our notions of authenticity and authorship. Think of what Photoshop alone has done to our sense of the veracity of the photograph. So it was predictable that in the Digital Age, there would be an organic backlash: defenders of the old ways, the old values, the old tools. In music, this expresses itself as a reverence for aged wood and gut string, a reveling in human imperfection and a celebration of archaic eccentricity – in other words, pretty much all new acoustic music these days that doesn’t come from Nashville and the country music establishment, and even some that does. In 1986, Tom Waits was alone in wanting his music to sound like anthropological field recordings. Now, that’s just what “real music” sounds like.
It was also predictable that this revival would romanticize and fetishize the past in a way that the past itself wouldn’t recognize, recovering a vivid lost world that probably never existed. The digital/postmodern sensibility is so deep in the drinking water that even the keepers of the old ways play by its rules, training their chops on archaic styles, reviving long-lost instruments and fashions as signifiers of their allegiances, building their very biographical narratives on a reference network of memes and myths of the past as if they, the players, were so many meatware samplers. Some recognize the irony; some are true believers.
The Wiyos hail from the great fertile delta of the nouveau retro: Brooklyn, New York. They swing, stomp and waltz with a fierce authenticity that betrays little modern influence. Hoodoo wagons and all the props of the “weird old America” populate their lyrics, vocals often filtered to sound like an old radio, if not a Victrola. They dress the hobo role (though not quite as fastidiously as many of their poor-geoisie peers). Even the band bio sports the requisite boxcar credentials, crowned by a New Orleans busking episode. They have willed themselves an older, weirder life, like so many of their contemporaries on the mainstage of American and British folk and indie rock.
The Wiyos could be my poster band for slavish, unironic retro fundamentalism – but for one small problem: They are a really, really good band. They play their guts out with fire and finesse, and their songs crackle with good ideas. And further, their latest CD, Twist, represents a giant step forward for them – a jailbreak from the doctrinal fundamentalism of their previous recordings. Their retro-American style matrix has not really changed much, and, five CDs and years of touring in, their command is wide and assured. It’s the loosening of the literalism, the withering of the historic façade that really awakens the Wiyos on Twist. It’s the sound of a band shaking free of its own old-time religion.
Earthy swing and a bluesy stomp comprise the Wiyos’ default styles. On top of this base, they layer evocations of ragtime, Dixieland, bluegrass, circus and macabre cabaret à la Tiger Lillies and the school of Veill and a healthy serving of Spike Joneslike frenetic musical comedy. Their excellent guitar player, whose voicings and choices provide much of the credibility of their musical scholarship, has obviously spent some time studying the snaky, artful dissonance of Mark Ribot (but who hasn’t?). On occasion, they go high-cheese Latin – not accurate Latin, but an accurate recreation of how Latin might have been perceived by Americans in, say, the ‘30s. And increasingly on Twist, they rock – a dark, urban, pre-rock kind of rock that sounds like Chicago and trains. The fact that it is getting harder to pigeonhole their style(s) is perhaps the best indicator of their growth.
On Twist, for the first time, the Wiyos sound irreverent. Their influences intermingle in ways that would outrage the devotional purist. The rule change is announced 57 seconds into the second song, the delightful rocker “Jolly Roger,” with a rapid sequence of groove and meter changes that sounds like the kind of violation of stylistic integrity routinely perpetrated by the Punch Brothers. Track three, “Scarecrow,” an indefinable bit of roots/ambient art song, seals the deal. This is not how they did it in the old days.
It is my unfortunate opinion that what has happened to the Wiyos – mimicry receding as a hard-earned original voice emerges – does not happen to most bands who come up playing the same specious, style-mongering game. They buy a hat and their head grows to fit, to paraphrase George Orwell. In a short online documentary about the making of Twist, one band member conjectures that their concept-album ambitions (Twist is a song cycle based loosely on The Wizard of Oz) in some ways jostled the Wiyos out of their familiar ways of working and writing, out of the corner into which they might have painted themselves. The grueling challenge of the cycle provided just enough resistance and discomfort.
Or it could just be that real talent and imagination will out? This is a serious, ambitious band at the height of its powers, and with a great CD – a masterpiece, even? – to support. The Wiyos will be performing at Club Helsinki in Hudson on Friday, June 8. Tickets cost $15. The show begins at 9 p.m. For tickets, visit https://helsinkihudson.com. Club Helsinki is located at 405 Columbia Street in Hudson. For more information on the Wiyos, visit https://thewiyos.com.