June 7, 2011

Douglas Martin is still waiting for Women and Wolf Parade to return, but Woods’ are helping palliate his sorrows.

Nobody would have faulted Woods for taking a break. The Brooklyn band– whose Jeremy Earl runs frighteningly consistent indie label Woodsist, whose Jarvis Taveniere runs Rear House Studios, whose Kevin Norby plays in a number of other bands (most notably: The Babies with lead Vivian Girl Cassie Ramone)– have worked hard enough over the past few years to earn some time off. But, as to be expected from this nascent decade’s crop of hyper-prolific DIY bands, this method doesn’t work for them. In addition to their myriad side-hustles, the members of Woods have released an album every year since 2006, breaking out with 2009’s stellar Songs of Shame and dropping a bona fide classic with last year’s At Echo Lake. And now, a paltry thirteen months later, the band is all geared up to release Sun and Shade. Business as usual, but does that make for good business?

If you prefer the poppier end of the Woods canon (Songs of Shame‘s “To Clean,” At Echo Lake‘s “Suffering Season”), then opener “Pushing Onlys” should be right up your alley. With its breezy major chords and familiar (if a little well-used) vocal melodies, Jeremy Earl brings out his instantly recognizable falsetto to sing of growing older, as yesterday’s tattered clothes litter the bedroom floor and the sands of time slipping from his hands. But let’s go back to Earl’s voice for a second, which seems to be a point of contention among the band’s listeners. His vocals have been compared to the following: A school fire alarm, a character on Muppet Babies, Elliott Smith with zipper troubles. I’ve always thought of Earl’s pained vocals as the perfect vehicle for his lyrics, usually detailing the sublime discomfort of emotional distress. The music and lyrical themes of Woods wouldn’t fit as well if Earl had a robust croon, a visceral bark, or a Stephen Malkmus-like sense of detachment.

The music that voice is set to allows for it to occupy its own space , as most of the psychedelic flourishes that bolstered and elevated the songs on At Echo Lake are pared down or taken out of the equation entirely. On dark, lonely tunes like “Wouldn’t Waste” and album closer “Say Goodbye,” this isn’t much of a problem, as the sparseness of the compositions make for its own chilling texture. But elsewhere on the album, the “sun” part of Sun and Shade are in clear view, focusing on the simple and sometimes sad feeling of a wistful summer weekend afternoon; no hidden layers or profound depth, comfortable with its own straightforwardness.

But there’s also been a roaming quality that courses through their music. Even with the shortest of tunes, Woods skirts past focused songwriting and embraces their meandering ways, a jam-band in thrift-store sheep clothing. Of course, being as jammy as they are, the temptation of creating long-form pieces is often indulged. That realm is really a grab-bag for them, because sometimes it works (Songs of Shame‘s driving “September With Pete”), and other times, it serves as filler (At Rear House‘s “Walk the Dogs” and “Picking Up the Pieces”). Sun and Shade has one of each. “Out of the Eye,” while still overstaying its welcome a little, finds Woods performing their loose interpretation of the krautrock genre, keeping a steady pace both in tempo in volume. The almost-ten-minute “Sol y Sombra” explores quiet instrumental folk, with electric guitar notes ringing in the background and hand drums bubbling underneath, as aimless as it is meditative. If you’ve ever been to a Woods live show, you’re aware that the band’s tendency to stretch things out can yield some fascinating rewards (por ejemplo: the eleven-minute live version of dissonant At Echo Lake standout “I Was Gone”). Here, both songs could stand to use quite a few more valleys and peaks, as the feeling of potential surprise fades during multiple listens, eventually sliding into ponderousness.

While there are some infectious moments on Sun and Shade (the classic R&B melodies of “Hand it Out,” the shuffling bongos of “White Out”), the album is missing that one really striking element Woods has used on their best records, whether it’s the gripping songwriting on Songs of Shame or the blooming, colorful textures of At Echo Lake. Like At Rear House, Sun and Shade is a charming but inessential Woods album, which makes you wonder a little if all of the work they’re doing– both in the band and outside of it– is starting to burn them out a little. But with a band as good as Woods, they could easily turn around and release a truly perfect album in 2012, so maybe the clearing house method is a good practice for them. Only time can tell, and it doesn’t seem to be running out for them yet.

Download:
MP3: Woods-“Pushing Only’s”

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