What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, in the midst of making her second solo album, Jenn Wasner was reeling from a recent heartbreak and, like so many of her peers, staring into the coronavirus abyss, wondering whether the career she had given her entire adult life to would still be there on the other side.
The resulting record, Head of Roses, is by turns desperate and defiant, delicate one minute and steely the next; a meditative search for ports in a storm.
One year on, with the album arriving to rave reviews last month, Wasner’s outlook is considerably brighter. She remains best known for her work as one half of Wye Oak, the Baltimore duo who have, on the quiet, delivered some of the finest indie rock records of the past decade, brooding, guitar-led atmospherics on 2011’s Civilian and gleaming synth-pop on 204’s Shriek.
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Their last album, meanwhile, 2018’s The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, blended the two. In that group, Wasner is used to bare-bones live setups – drummer Andy Stack would often play his kit with one hand and a keyboard with the other – so you can imagine how exhilarating it was putting together a nine-piece band for this run-through most of Head of Roses, with members plucked from Bon Iver, Mountain Man and Sylvan Esso, at whose Betty’s recording studio in Chapel Hill the set was shot.
To say the ensemble brings the record to life would be a dramatic understatement. Presented this way, the songs are transformed – triumphant where once they were tentative.
Opener “2 Heads”, a nervy curtain-raiser on record, becomes a fierce electronic hymnal, while there’s genuine swagger to an extended, crunching “Price of Blue”, on which Wasner reminds us of her guitar chops with a freewheeling solo.
For as impressive as the band are – not least because this slick performance has apparently been pulled together with just 48 hours’ of rehearsal time – you get the sense that they’re happy for Wasner, and this group of songs, to take centre stage.
She grasps the opportunity, too; there’s a palpable confidence running through everything from “Hard Way”, a gently self-deprecating lullaby, to “One More Hour”, a thoughtful reflection on old habits dying hard.
With another show to follow, it’s mildly disappointing not to hear this band dip their toe into the Wye Oak catalogue, although the countrified jangle of deep cut “The Joke” suits them down to the ground, and serves as a neat closer. This time last year ago, Wasner could never have imagined these songs would sound this bright and breezy this soon; where once it was mired in sadness, Head of Roses now sounds like a celebration of the strength it takes to stare down adversity.