(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Recording review - Woods, With Light and With Love (2014)

Little clarity, but plenty of relaxed acceptance

Woods’ 2011 album Sun and Shade offered truth in advertising, tempering their bright folk sound with hazy if not truly dark psychedelia. Their followup, Bend Beyond (2012), honed that edge with songs that balanced simple acoustic strums and delicately distorted fills. On With Light and With Love, the band continues along the same path. While each of these records makes its own statement, Woods hasn’t wavered or evolved their aesthetic approach along the way. Instead, they’ve polished their studio and songwriting skills to approach their ideal: the sunny side is distilled into crystalline clarity, and the shade offers hints of mystery and hidden connections.

The album opens with the lazy beat and light steel tones of “Shepherd”. The song evokes both Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Graham Nash’s solo work. If every tune has a perfect home where it belongs – “We Will Rock You” in the stadium, “Us and Them” in headphones on a dorm room floor – then the beautiful simplicity of this tune calls for a starry mountain night with friends and a campfire. Jeremy Earl’s breathy falsetto is lightly flanged and distant, making him less a friend offering perspective than a niggling voice of conscience, “Look out, what’s upon you?/ It’s a shepherd for your sorrow/ And this one, it burns for me and for you.” Earl’s words are rarely self-consciously oblique, and they sound good in the ear, but, on closer inspection, real meaning is elusive. Maybe the vocal treatment muddies the lyrical water, but it’s hard to make sense of lines that sound like, “A skull for roses bleeds the past/ it’s the shape that never lasts/ And this one, it grows for you.” If the literal message is vague here, the ambiance of the tune is clearer. That pattern persists through With Light and With Love. The band’s musical prowess has improved, but their lyrical skills are still lagging.

The album’s climax comes relatively early, with the nine minute title track that showcases Woods’ love of heady noodling. The steady progression stalks forward, anchored by a rich melodic bass and attended by meandering electric fills. In this context, Earl’s high pitched singing sounds like John Gourley from Portugal. The Man, but the vocals are not really the point. The real focus is the mix of pensive tension and resolute action. There are long periods where the guitar lead chatters in the right channel, full of sound and fury, but when it desists, it reveals a keyboard riffing hypnotically, low in the mix. Near the five minute mark, after another chaotic splash of acidic guitar distortion, the instruments drop away and the song becomes a Pink Floyd tribute. With simple organ chords and a heartbeat bass, it’s a bit like “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” for a short respite before an earlier motif reasserts itself with ragged energy. Unlike Bend Beyond, which reined in the band’s excesses, Woods shows absolutely no restraint as they ride this epic piece through its changes.

The long-form jam of “With Light and With Love” seems to open the floodgates, allowing spacy details to permeate the following tracks more fully than the first songs. The bridge in “Moving To The Left” slips into surrealism, spaceship sound effects kick off the retro sunshine psych of “Twin Steps” and the end of “Feather Man” descends into an ambient meltdown. But none of these hallucinatory ripples overcome the band’s peaceful sense of acceptance. Woods maintains a dreamy Zen detachment that emphasizes the light and an abstract love.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

No comments:

Post a Comment