Sunday, September 11, 2011

Woods - Sun and Shade

Woods – Sun and Shade (5/5)

Woods have released three albums in the last three years. Surprisingly, this breakneck recording speed has had no impact on the quality of their material. Woods’s past three albums, Songs of Shame, At Echo Lake, and, their most recent, Sun and Shade are all impeccable pop albums. Each album fits a certain well worn mold that the Woods have occupied for a few years now. And even if the band prefers to tinker with their sound, making changes around the edges, rather than overhauling it from the ground up, I just can’t hold that against them since Woods always hit the bullseye, even if they barely move the target.

The sound of Woods might be reductively described as a lo-fi version of the Grateful Dead, minus the self-indulgent jamming. But what makes their sound so enduring is the way different sonic elements brush up against one another. The songs themselves are instantly catchy, yet each instrument must be heard through the bristling lo-fi recording; the band’s sound can be instantly uplifting, yet their lyrics often have a cynical lilt. Woods continue to stretch these dynamics on Sun and Shade whose first three songs, “Pushing Onlys,” “Any Other Day,” and “Be All Easy” are a musical triptych that runs the emotional gamut from nostalgic to melancholy to stirring.

After this opening salvo, Woods go into one of their winding instrumental tracks, “Out of the Eye.” At least one song on Woods’s past three albums has been an experiment in songwriting where they treat structure like putty, stretching it out until the music barely holds itself together. As if to apologize for the sheer accessibility of their last album, the impossibly catchy, At Echo Lake, here Woods have included two of these instrumentals. This changes the dynamic of the album, putting the listener on edge. The second of these instrumentals, “Sol y Sombra,” delves into percussion and atmosphere, like the soundtrack to a spaghetti Western directed by Terrence Malick.

But perhaps the most surprising change on the latest album is that on several songs lead singer Jeremy Earl drops the old timey microphone, which normally makes the vocals sound as if they are being transmitted from seventy years ago. The creaky vocals are such an instantly recognizable part of the band’s identity that I was genuinely taken aback to hear his voice sound so naked. So I suppose I don’t care if Woods don’t feel the need to drop a Sgt. Pepper like reevaluation of their sound. Their music is so haunting, so limitless that tweaking their sound is enough. Besides, even the Beatles had to record Help, Rubber Soul, and Revolver before they could tackle Sergeant Pepper.

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