Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Music Review: Woods - At Echo Lake

"As the saying goes, the weird get weirder. But while this may more or less prove accurate in day to day life, in the music world, quite the opposite tends to be true (hell, even Ariel Pink is making waves this year). This is once again evidenced by New York-based psych-folk troupe Woods, who—after a handful of willfully tossed-off full-lengths and the odd 7-inch—return with their highest profile and most committed release yet, At Echo Lake. Thankfully, most of the band’s familiar hallmarks are still present: barely-tuned acoustic strumming, frontman Jeremy Earl’s eternally nasally vox, and a (slightly less noticeable) layer of lo-fi ambiance rubbing up against hand manipulated tape effects courtesy of G. Lukas Crane (this band’s equivalent of Animal Collective’s Geologist, apparently). What they’ve got here in spades that heretofore had only been nonchalantly hinted at—particularly on their little heard and tellingly titled 2007 effort At Rear House—are, oddly enough, actual songs. Three dimensional, verse/chorus/bridge-type stuff. “Rain On,” from last year’s charmingly lackadaisical Songs of Shame, tightened the band’s formula considerably and resulted in a breakthrough on a couple of levels. And thus it seems to have been adapted as the jumping off point for this more composed and confident follow-up.

So what’s the rub? The loss of a few idiosyncrasies that have until now endeared this band to a sect of fans who cherish the kind of early-90s tape-trading amateurishness that Woods and their label Woodsist embody. Which, sure, kind of sucks on a fundamental level, but let’s focus on the good: not only is At Echo Lake available on cassette for the purists, but each of the songs still pretty much rule—and that, like any good record, is At Echo Lake’s biggest selling point. What we lose in ten-minute instrumental psych odysseys and brief acoustic-pop interludes we gain in a string of focused pop-rock gems, many of which are amongst the best songs Earl has written. And the band wastes no time announcing this, as opener “Blood Dries Darker” nearly emerges mid-guitar solo and proceeds to travel though a handful of carefully composed movements, complete with the first of many indelible central vocal melodies from Earl—and a couple more tripped-out guitar solos, for good measure. Woods sound comfortable during these more structured tracks, which they reiterate with equal composure on the tape-warped “Suffering Season” and the Matthew Valentine assisted “Time Fading Lines,” making for a nice trio of would-be singles.

As inarguably good as these tracks are, however, I’m nevertheless grateful that a few glimpses of the old, half-bored Woods make appearances throughout the record. Riding in on the same ripped tape loop that spills over from “Blood Dries Darker,” “Pick Up” reverts to the sparse acoustics of Songs of Shame; while closer "Til the Sun Rips” ends the album on a slightly darker (or at least more anxious) note than a lot of the surrounding material. But despite the relative consistency, I can’t quite bring myself to muster the same enthusiasm for At Echo Lake as Songs of Shame, a record which I continue to find so effortlessly inspired that it has almost single-handedly kept me interested in the modern lo-fi scene. Still, I feel pretty confident in saying that At Echo Lake will probably end up the more popular record amongst casual fans of the band, while the Woodsist faithful will consume and be satisfied in a similar if not quite as revelatory manner. If nothing else, At Echo Lake should mark Woods’s development from beloved lo-fi cultists to well regarded mid-level indie touring unit. Which, more than a lot of bands out there, these guys actually deserve. When you’ve got an inherently laid-back charm and preternatural gift for melody the way Woods obviously do, it’s only fair that a few more listeners get in on the secret." [76/100] [Published 05.25.10]

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