Jeff Pearson, September 19, 2012
Listen: “Bend Beyond”
Since 2005, the seemingly displaced time-travelers making up the band Woods—looking astonishingly on at the world around them as they cling to the music they made in whatever long-ago they came from—have consistently poured creative output on the listening community. At a record-a-year clip, Woods has become a reliable source for low fidelity psychedelic folk-rock, reminiscent of shaman-guided treks through the desert where the experimental bent is consistently harnessed by tightly-wound melodies wrapping around the madness. Over the years, the sound on Woods’ records has grown more refined, the band’s pop sensibilities surviving those vision quests for the wiser and finding a balance between the free-form jamming that dominates their live shows and melodically rich, concise songwriting. With each record, the Brooklyn-based band has lifted the veil of abstraction a tiny bit, revealing the simplistic beauty that lies within the heart of the songwriting team of Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere’s work. What was once an opaque mask of fuzzed-out experimentalism has all but disappeared on their latest record, Bend Beyond, and left in plain sight the group’s clearest portrayal of their artistic vision yet.
Not only is Bend Beyond Woods’ most approachable album, it is their heaviest, both in sonic scope and subject matter. Earl recently stated that they felt the need to go “beyond” what they have been doing with the past six records, and the result was an album that most closely resembles the energy of a live show. While the record practically bursts into shards of glass, refracting the world around it into multi-colored light on tracks like the opening title track and “Find Them Empty,” there is a sense of solemnity on “It Ain’t Easy” and “Back To The Stone” that stems from the profound loss of his father around the time of recording last year’s Sun And Shade. The dark lyrical elements through Bend Beyond and the sweeping, energetic nature of the bulk of the record provides for an interesting juxtaposition; it accurately displays the confusion and loss of identity that tends to occur when such an impactful event courses its way through a person’s life. The contrasting styles on display only serve to broaden the terrain that the record is playing on rather than scatter the ideas sporadically across its all-too-brief thirty minute timespan. Perhaps the brevity of the record plays into that service; since Bend Beyond is so short, there is never a time when the listener feels they’ve had too much of any one thing, and by the time the final track, “Something Surreal,” has run its course, the opener “Bend Beyond” is calling to be played again to start the whole process over again.
“Bend Beyond” opens the record with a flash of light, stomping psychedelic rock led by acoustic guitars and Taveniere’s funky, serpentine lead guitar lines. The song is an appropriate opener for a record like Bend Beyond; while there is some freely roaming experimentation in the intense instrumental breakdown, the band delivers the highly catchy chorus one more time, like golden light finally breaking through the clouds after a storm. As the breakdown reaches its apex, the entire band locked in a tightly constructed, yet completely free jam, Earl’s vocal breaks through, assuredly singing, “Just to see, just to know, just to bend beyond the light.” It is indicative of the record as a whole, and of course of the circumstances in Earl’s life as of last year, that deliverance seems to always come even in the darkest times, that—not to sound too cliché—there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. In the past the dark imagery of Woods’ music was often overshadowed by a somewhat lighthearted delivery—perhaps embodied in Earl’s delicate falsetto vocals—but Bend Beyond forces the listener to embrace the darkness and to seek the light right along with them.
“Cali In A Cup” has Earl wearing his Dylan influences on his sleeve; harmonica gives the otherwise somewhat jaunty tune a grimy coating on the album’s lead single. Woods consistently show their highly refined songwriting throughout Bend Beyond, not only showing off their melodic sensibilities more than ever, but penning some of their most instantly gratifying melodies to date. Tracks like “Size Meets The Sound” and “Impossible Sky” have a familiarity that can only come from music so closely tied to its influences, yet Woods never feel like they are aping their predecessors; each song has the band’s personal touch. Only the best pop music can elicit such a response from the listener, and it is a testament to the simplistic nature of the way we listen to music in that even on a first listen of “Impossible Sky,” it wouldn’t be out of the question to be singing along with words you only heard seconds before. As listeners, we respond most to simple and catchy tunes, and Bend Beyond shows a keen understanding of that and even a fondness of the simplicity found within the catchiest songs. It is refreshing; we are in a time when Woods’ peers are typically embracing complex harmonic arrangement, and while there is of course great merit in that, Earl’s falsetto—growing stronger each album—dancing alone atop the bulk of the material on Bend Beyond is comforting.
Perhaps the greatest example of the beauty to be found in the simplicity of Woods’ music is the bare bones “It Ain’t Easy.” Simply an acoustic guitar and Earl’s vocal, at his strongest while delivering such heartbreaking imagery, “It Ain’t Easy” serves as one of the most touching and introspective songs in their catalog. Never eschewing the need to deliver memorable melodies, Earl reflects on the confused nature that his day-to-day living has taken on. In saying, “Ain’t it hard to say / That it ain’t easy / Looking for different ways / To make things stay the same,” Earl is addressing what every person who has suffered loss has experienced, searching for something that will bring back the feeling of still having that person around. The stripped-down nature of the song highlights the crushing honesty in Earl’s voice, and also serves to show the band’s varying songwriting—that they can confidently deliver such a heartbreakingly beautiful message in the midst of what is their heaviest record to date.
Ultimately, it is the variation of songs spread throughout Bend Beyond that makes the record so special. The album serves as a showcase of sorts, each face the band has worn throughout their already prolific career is worn at various times throughout, and is less blurred by the opaqueness that has shrouded their music in the past. From the psychedelic ride through space of “Bend Beyond” all the way to the forlorn folk of “It Ain’t Easy,” this is Woods at their most realized. It goes to show that allowing the listener to more cleanly grasp their message and ability to write great pop songs has also allowed the band to write their best record yet.