Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Woods

Woods are my favorite contemporary band for a lot of reasons, but the two biggest are their song writing chops and the weird sounds they weave throughout them. I don’t know enough about music to be sure exactly how they do it, but their tunes seem to reside in the major and minor keys simultaneously, if that’s even possible – they’re happy and sad all at the same time. And they’re infectious, highly hummable. As for the weird sounds, it all comes from the way they record: straight-up analogue. Inspired by records from the 60s and early 70s, the band has sought to recapture that sound by recording on the same old-school tape systems their idols did. Jarvis Taveniere, who along with Jeremy Earl forms the core of the group, said once in an interview, “when I began to develop my ear and have a more defined opinion on sound, I realized most of my favorite albums didn't sound expensive. I knew we couldn't play like The Byrds, but ‘Eight Miles High’ didn't seem sonically out of reach.” Woods go for those warm, cosmic sounds that creep into classic albums, like part on “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” from The Notorious Byrd Brothers (and the Easy Rider soundtrack) where the melody seems to get sucked into an oscillating jet engine, or the washed-out euphoria of “Shine a Light,” near the close of Exile on Main Street, or every second of Their Satanic Majesties Request. But they’re not a retro band. Despite the nods to the past, they’re a very current band. They’re like how music from the 60s would be if time had gone in reverse and punk had come first.
            They’re also Dead Heads, or at least Earl is, and for years I’ve been trying to get an old Dead Head friend of mine into them. At my urging, he checked out their 2010 release, At Echo Lake, and didn’t much like it; he thought the playing was subpar and the vocals were grating (“sloppy and hoarse,” is how he described them). It’s true, Earl has an unusual high-pitched voice, and it tends to polarize music fans: some love it, some cringe. And it’s true, too, that their musical skills have been evolving. Much as I love them, I rarely listen to their earliest records because, although they show some promise they’re not particularly well-executed. But with their last four records, starting with 2009’s Songs of Shame, they’ve steadily improved on all fronts: song writing, playing, recording technique, even singing. And with this year’s release, Bend Beyond, I think they’ve made a record that’ll ring nicely in my friend’s discriminating ears. The vocals are much smoother, and they’re nicely stacked in rich harmonies.     The songs are catchy and deceptively simple, masterfully played, but not slick—they’ve maintained their DIY edge. Indie music blogs are hailing it as their “most approachable gateway yet,” a cleaner presentation of their loose and lovable sound, and the band is forthright about the more deliberate approach they took in making it, spending more time crafting the songs in their home studios, moving away from the more spontaneous, devil-may-care policy that drove their earlier releases. A good comparison for this release is the records put out last year by Real Estate and Kurt Vile. Both artists had started in the low-fi quadrant of the underground music cosmos, and both had early releases on Earl’s label, Woodsist. Their 2011 releases were their first pro studio albums on big labels. Among the two, I’d place Bend Beyond nearer to the Kurt Vile end of the spectrum. It’s cleaner, yes, and more professional, but their sound has lost little if any of their weirdness and uniqueness, and I have to admit I can’t say the same about Real Estate’s Days, which was a bit too polished. What lifts Woods’ new record above the ones by their friends is that they did it themselves. Near as I can tell, they aim to keep doing so, and I believe they’ll keep getting better and better.

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