Release Date: September 18, 2012
Scan the new Woods album’s track list, and the adjectives are what leap out: “honest,” “easy,” “empty,” “impossible,” “surreal,” “beyond.” Which about sums up the seventh dispatch from this very prolific Brooklyn crew. The realm invoked on Bend Beyond delves deep into the Big Empty, and yet these songs put it all within reach, a mirage that’s “just a bend beyond the light,” as frontman Jeremy Earl puts it on the title track.
It seems odd to posit Woods as one of contemporary music’s most effective keepers of the jam-band flame, given that the longest song here clocks in at just 4:25, though the quartet is coming off an album (last year’s Sun and Shame) where two long instrumentals accounted for almost half the 44-minute run time. By contrast, the lone instrumental on Bend Beyond is the psychedelic vamp “Cascade,” clocking in at a brisk two minutes. And yet these guys sound more jammy than ever, albeit remarkably concise and capable of popcraft both stellar and interstellar. There is a sense of sonic expansiveness here that would’ve gone over like gangbusters at the H.O.R.D.E. Festival back in the day; fire this up for the token Phish fan in your life and watch him swoon.
Sounding like a rustic, back-porch Flaming Lips, Woods combine the Grateful Dead’s looseness with Pavement-esque angularity to generate oddly delectable pop nuggets. Fuzz-toned electric guitars lock in with acoustic jingle-jangle and cannily deployed aural embellishments. Here, they deepen their sound past lo-fi into something redolent of actual studio polish. You’ve never heard a harmonica sound as remote as it does on first single “Cali in a Cup.” The spectral keyboard riff of “Find Them Empty” is the perfect counterpoint to the squalling guitars. And the horns that kick in on the closing stretch of “Back to the Stone” provide the wide-open feel of a spaghetti Western soundtrack.
Earl’s voice is still an earnest yelp, echoing the nasality of Neil Young and other ’60s icons of Left Coast country rock — he’s a dead ringer for Byrds icon Roger McGuinn on “Is It Honest,” a song built on guitar chime and the chorus “But it’s so fucking hard.” The next song, “It Ain’t Easy,” finds our narrator grappling with the death of a lover by “lookin’ for different ways to make things stay the same” in a deceptively easy croon. But it’s not an easy trick — even if Woods sometimes make it look that way.