Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review: Woods - Songs of Shame (* * * 1/2)

I’m still not completely sold on the whole noise-rock movement, but it's apparently something I’ll just have to get used to if not learn to enjoy. The list of bands playing everything from folk to metal drowned in feedback and distortion just keeps getting longer, and while it doesn’t always appeal to me, I have found some compelling acts within the genre. Of course, noise-rock isn’t new to this year or the last, but bands like Woods (and Wavves, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, No Age, etc. – for a complete listing, see Pitchfork’s 'Best New Music' page) have certainly received ample accolades recently. Considering this, it was a nice surprise to find that the duo behind Woods (Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere) take a more rustic approach than most of their peers, combining classic folk-rock with a hazy indie style that I must admit – despite my prejudices – caught my attention on their new record, Songs of Shame.

What allows Woods’ fussy folk tunes to rise above those of the standard noise band is their ability to write great melodies that shine through the haze. Though singer Jeremy Earl’s voice is often clouded and distant, the songs generally maintain a strong sense of melody that connects the listener to the music and anchors the sometimes overtly abstract tunes to recognizable musical elements. Opener “To Clean” features messy guitar lines and somewhat muted percussion to compliment Earl’s unique falsetto, with lyrics that are often difficult to discern, but worth the effort to do so. The song is a good introduction to the band’s style; the record continues in a similar vein, offering mostly brief slices of mid-tempo, low-fi rock ‘n’ roll. There are several highlights here, most notably the inspired cover of Graham Nash's “Military Madness” and the melancholy, beautiful “Rain On,” which demonstrates this band's range.

It’s unfortunate that too much of the rest of this record fails to reach the bar set by the band's best material. Most of the songs hold up alright on their own, but in the context of the album, many simply fade into each other. Over time, and with repeated listens, tunes like the swampy “To Hold,” the sloppy “Gypsy Hand” and the psychedelic and unmemorable “Echo Lake” start to develop some discernible qualities, but there isn’t enough of a return for the effort required. The band also throws in a nearly ten-minute instrumental, “Summer with Pete,” early in the record that seems unnecessarily lengthy and distracting especially given its placement, but, by the same token, it’s refreshing to hear something a little out of the ordinary.

When all is said and done, it’s the unusual properties of Songs of Shame that both draw me in and push me away. Woods are too smart to allow themselves to be pigeonholed into one category or stay still for very long, and it’s very obvious that the two musicians have plenty of talent and myriad ideas. So, while Songs of Shame doesn’t consistently hit the mark, it succeeds in giving a solid introduction to a band that has flown too far below the radar during their career, and one that we should be looking forward to hearing much more from in the future.

Last Word:

Woods’ fourth record, Songs of Shame, is an enjoyable, if inconsistent, collection of noise-folk tunes that hints at better things to come from this boundary-pushing duo.