Last week Bob Dylan released his 35th studio album, Tempest, and on it he stares down death with the unwavering glare of a man used to giving the abyss the stink eye. “I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun/I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done,” he sings with gargled precision on “Pay In Blood,” and throughout the record he remains bitter, caustic and death-obsessed to the point that even the love songs sound hopeless. While Brooklyn’s Woods are far younger than Dylan, they remain similarly obsessed with the delicate balance between the light and the dark—the Sun And Shade, as their 2011 record succinctly put it—and they go about addressing these topics in a ramshackle, inarticulate manner that fits their often tape-hiss-addled sound. “It gets hard without much to say/I pile stones in lieu of your grave,” sings lead vocalist Jeremy Earl on the band’s latest, Bend Beyond, turning Dylan’s “everybody must get stoned” cynicism into something more heartfelt.
Comparing any contemporary artist to Dylan can be eye-roll inducing—just ask Conor Oberst, the Tallest Man On Earth and, ummm… Dave Matthews Band—but Woods are an especially divergent strand of folk rock, owing far more to Neil Young’s guitar squall and the Grateful Dead’s rhythmic sprawl than Dylan’s more traditional ballads. Woods will probably always be considered a shambling band, but they’ve refined their rickety sound over the last seven years, and their latest album is a testament to their consistency and longevity. Where the last record, Sun And Shade, found the band stretching out for long, kraut-influenced jams that floated like smoke from a campfire, Bend Beyond is fundamentally a pop record, with no songs over five minutes and most clocking in under three. Eschewing the hypnotic quality of their quasi-mystical, improv-heavy live shows for a tighter, sunnier sensibility, Woods have crafted their leanest, most immediately satisfying collection of songs yet.
Lead single “Cali In A Cup” is indicative of the band’s slightly polished aesthetic. Beginning with a shimmering acoustic guitar tone before breaking out into a harmonica-assisted chug, the song finds Earl returning to the band’s typical pastoral themes but with a more inquisitive eye. “I look back on Sundays as the leaves fall on the snow/You might be part of it but the seasons overflow,” he sings toward the beginning of the track, before sharpening his anxieties into a succinct question in the chorus: “How can we ever love?” Though the album has its share of serene pop moments that draw comparisons to the cheery Byrds-inflected pop of various Paisley Underground bands, what really distinguishes Earl as a songwriter is his searching, questioning lyrics, always delivered in a yearning falsetto. “As nice as this is it/Is it honest?” he asks on the appropriately titled “Is It Honest.” The sonic clarity of the production, which makes room for little details like organ squiggles and murmured snare parts, also allows for Earl’s ruminations to be heard above the din of the guitars.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its noisier digressions: The instrumental “Cascade” bubbles and pops like a cauldron filled with melting cassette tapes, and the opening of “Find Them Empty” cackles with devilish intensity. What makes Bend Beyond so special is it allows theses flourishes to exist without ever overreaching or letting the melodies get lost in the clutter. You can hear hints of the band’s wilder, more experimental side creeping into the nooks and crannies of these songs, like when the opening title track morphs into a swampy dirge with a wiry, shape-shifting guitar solo midway through, but for the most part the record shows Earl and the rest of the band making strong editorial choices. As is often the case with prolific and idea-filled bands, the group gains power from what it chooses to leave out.
And when they strip away almost everything, as on the acoustic ballad “It Ain’t Easy,” the band sounds luminescent. Like Dylan, no one will ever confuse Earl’s cracking, aching voice with a classically trained pro, but gradually it reveals its idiosyncratic charms. Over a lightly strummed twilight folk tune, Earl articulates what could be seen as Bend Beyond’s fundamental ethos, a type of patient battle against the darkness. “Looking for different ways to make things stay the same,” he sings. Woods may not change much, but they’re getting better and better at staying the same.