Monday, 17 December 2012

Album review: Woods - Bend Beyond

Woods have never been a love on first listen sort of band for me. My relationship with the Jeremy Earl-led ensemble has always been more of a curious friendship valued at impromptu times, rather than some full-blown, heart-quivering love affair that exploded at first listen. But that’s okay. Those kind of instantaneous, depth-charged affairs never last. Something sexier always comes along, flouting fresh lughole-loving noise to steals my affections.

Woods, though, are different. Without every really being there, they never go away. They’re always lurking; patiently waiting to take their chance when fortune (or shuffle) leads me back to the arable rinse of Songs of Shame or the languid melodies that haunt At Echo Lake. And then I’m hooked. Lost to the hazy, hopeful glows that radiate from Earl’s joyous falsetto and the band’s penchant for lo-fi sun-blushed-psychedelia.

This unfaltering nature is what makes Woods such a dependable, if unspectacular, proposition on record. Yet, album number six, Bend Beyond, indicates the band isn’t necessarily happy with this state of affairs. Rather than using the same home-spun formula that worked so successfully on At Echo Lake and last year’s Sun and Shade, Woods have sought to build on the epic, sprawling dynamics of their live outings to create something thicker, bolder, and maybe even more lovable.

As curtain-raisers go, the title track is as persuasive a statement of intent as you could hope to hear. Orientating around slow, sludging guitars, its tip-toe pace gradually rises into a ferocious psych-rock wig-out akin to Grandaddy at a microdot-induced orgy. More dynamic and brazen than ever before, the track finds Earl unshackling his staple melancholia to shrill “just to see, just to know, just to bend beyond the light” while a sprawl of layered, clanging instrumentation writhes underneath.

Then, after such a triumphant opening, Woods make a strange decision: they revert to type. Suddenly, Bend Beyond's growling throes succumb to summery guitar chimes and its pulsating percussion is replaced by mallowy acoustics. After stumbling down an unfamiliar alley, it’s as if Earl and co have found their way back to the familiarity of the main street, finding comfort in ‘Cali in a Cup’s jaunty Byrds-esque melody and the alt country balladeering of ‘Back to the Stone’.

Given this descent to normality, it’s hard to get excited about a record that rarely moves from its musical comfort blanket. But there are still moments. Snaking guitars wind their way through ‘Cascade’s climatic drum thunder; ‘Find them Empty’ is a swirling totem of swamping, stomping blues; and ‘Size Meets Sounds’ valiantly attempts to reach that opening high with a bar-brawl of crashing, nuanced noise.

In hindsight, front-loading the record with 'Bend Beyond' probably wasn’t the smartest of steps for a band refashioning its image. Its formidable peak was always going to dominate handclapping toe-tappers like 'Lily'. Yet, there’s still a lot to admire here. As a whole, Bend Beyond is as full and broad as Woods have ever sounded. Sure, it lacks the adventure promised by its opening gambit, but this is a band shaping its ambitions at a gradual pace. As Jeremy Earl, himself, puts it: “It ain’t easy looking for different ways to make things stay the same”.

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