Friday, August 5, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Woods

One of the best things about record collecting is the whole discovery aspect, the way you can venture off in any direction into music and find the most amazing things, which lead to more amazing things, and even more, and so on. And sometimes you come across something so big you have to actually step back and try to figure out how it’s going to fit into your life. Because it’s more than, say, a half dozen albums and a concert DVD. It’s years and years of music on vinyl and CD and CDR and cassette and video and sometimes even books, and a lot of it is hard to find and quite expensive, but you have to have every last note.

A couple years ago I made a simple little iTunes purchase that started me down the path to the mother lode. I was on the hunt for new music, reading Pitchfork everyday, when I came across a good review of an album by a Brooklyn band called Woods. I listened to the whole album, Songs of Shame, for free on some Internet start-up that’s now defunct, and I liked its blend of ramshackle garage sound with psychedelic guitar sounds, peculiar vocal harmonies and solid songwriting, so I tossed another ten bucks Steve Jobs’s way. I’d play to it on my iPod when I’d go running, or sometimes on my computer while I worked, but I wouldn’t have called it a favorite or a main staple. But then, after I bought my turntable and started collecting records again, I came across a used copy of it on LP in the new arrivals bin at Love Garden in Lawrence, Kansas. When the clerk rang me up he told me their most recent release, At Echo Lake, was even better, but it was early in my new record-collecting adventure and I wasn’t very adventurous yet.

That all changed when I listened to it on vinyl, of course. It was like I’d never heard it before, rich with complexities that hadn’t revealed themselves to me through my puny ear buds or $50 computer speakers. I went right back to the record store and got At Echo Lake, and the clerk was right – sturdy songs with fetching pop melodies adorned with trippy distortion/noise and bent and twisted notes weaving throughout. I couldn’t get enough so I went online to learn more about them, and I found that they had a new record coming out, and, for the first time since college, I started counting the days to an album release date. I bought Sun and Shade directly from the label before it showed up in stores, and when I put it on the turntable I realized I had found an incredible band early enough in their career that I could actually listen to them grow – explore new sounds, tweak old sounds and mature. Sun and Shade is a lot like Woods’ earlier records, ten songs with melodies so catchy I find myself humming them when I’m in a bad mood and a couple of long instrumental jams that are chock full of weirdness. But there’s a mastery here that wasn’t as fully developed on Songs of Shame and At Echo Lake. The vocals are smoother, a little less high pitch and off center, and they’re richly layered with lovely harmonies. One of the alt music blogs I read regularly said that a lot of the songs would’ve sounded right at home on stage at Woodstock, and I agree: they’re bright with sunshine and flowers even when the lyrics are sad and lead man Jeremy Earl’s voice is full of emotion; but they’re also unmistakably new, full of curlicues of distortion and twisted tones that take into account every rock and roll revolution since Sgt. Pepper’s.

So I loved it, and now I’m hooked, which is fun but not easy. Woods has been making music since 2006, but all of their early stuff was released on short runs of a few hundred copies and it’s all out of print. I managed to find a few things at the record store, most notably a one-sided 12” of live acoustic versions of a few tunes from Songs of Shame with photo-copied art glued to a blank white album sleeve. But most is only available online, where the shipping charges are steep, and some of it you have to really flex your Google muscles to find - like their first release, a split 12” inch they released with the now defunct Raccoo-oo-oon. It’s a true “got to have it” artifact with a hand silk-screened cover and a real rabbit foot attached. I searched for hours and days and finally found one – literally ­one – listed on Woodsist’s site for $40. But by the time I was ready to place an order a week later, the listing was gone. So I emailed the label and got a reply from Earl himself saying he might have one but I’d have to wait until he got back from his summer tour before I could get it, which is pretty cool in and of itself.

Earl has his own record label, Woodsist, and my love of Woods led me to explore their catalogue and listen to samples of the bands on Myspace and found an entire world of psychedelic music ranging from highly structured stuff like Woods to completely out there improvisational sounds like Herbcraft, who I wrote about here recently. And when I say “world,” I mean it. Pretty much all of the bands on the Woodsist label had released albums for other small labels such as Not Not Fun, Mexican Summer and Thrill Jockey. And they all comprised a nationwide community, a burgeoning subculture of artists – Real Estate, Ducktails, Sun Araw, Raccoo-oo-oon, MV + EE and a bunch more I’d never heard of – who walk on the far-out side and who have been releasing music for years on LP, 12” EP, 7” and cassette in short run, like the rabbit foot record. Suddenly I had a lot of things to collect. Hundreds and thousands of dollars worth. More than that, my hobby had a new imperative, and I felt like I was part of something wonderful and amazing that few other people knew about, and that’s an awesome feeling.

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