Woods – Bend Beyond
I’d probably trust Woods with my PIN number. They’re more dependable than most people I know. There are few other bands that you can so surely bank on to annually release a record that out-hooks almost anything else, while receiving relatively modest acclaim.
It might be Jeremy Earl’s strange falsetto that keeps Woods’ classicist psych-folk from sounding like an exhibition of sepia photographs from the 60s or the band’s almost Elliott Smith level of melodic precision that maintains their relevancy.
Because even though it would be impossible to divorce Woods from their crashy drum sound, noisy lead guitar, campfire strumming and scrappy production it’s their songs that make all of the above matter. It’s the most important least important aspect that so many dream pop revival and nu-gaze bands (Woods aren’t one, but that movement is rivalled only by garage rock in this regard) get wrong – a sound, an aesthetic, is one thing, but if you’re a “song band”, i.e. a band that plays songs, and everything that goes into the sound isn’t memorable then the whole thing didn’t really work.
Bend Beyond is Woods’ seventh album in seven years and their fourth truly killer album in four years. Both brighter, with cleaner and sparklier production, and with an element of darkness, it’s Woods most crafted record; the first album where they planned the songs rather than recording them as soon as they were written.
I suppose it’s a testament to the clarity and discipline of the collective Woods mind that, a few noisy instrumental aside, their previous material hardly sounds like the kind of tossed-off, conception-to-spewing-birth, scatter-fest that such an off the cuff approach to recording invites.
Bar one instrumental track the remaining eleven tap into the pop pleasure zone so prevalent on Sun and Shade and the best moments of At Echo Lake. The decision to do away with their previous album’s long instrumentals, which work well in their live sets, was probably wise on this occasion as repeated listens didn’t necessarily serve ‘Out of the Eye’ or ‘Sol y Sombre’ well.
Single ‘Cali in a Cup’, complete with sunny harmonica, represents the brighter side of Bend Beyond. It’s not just lazy journalism but lazy daydreaming on the listener’s part if the best imagery that comes out of Woods sound is hippies stoned on a hill, because they’re a much richer and fully formed band than that. However, if you were going to grow a fearsome beard and do psychedelics at the side of your nearest council recreational ground you could pick a worse soundtrack than Bend Beyond’s first couple of tracks.
The title track itself integrates the screeching solos and more vibrant elements that would have been instrumentals on earlier records into its bridge, and the hook alone is enough secure its place in the live canon for years to come.
‘Is It Honest?’ is a high watermark for the band; autumnal, breezy and among the most accessible tracks they’ve produced. Earl describes spending a bit of quality time with someone followed by all the doubt about what it means and if it means anything all. In what will certainly be the most quoted lyric on the record, Earl signs off with an uncharecteristic: “It’s so fucking hard”.
‘Find Them Empty’ introduces a kind of heroic guitar noise that reaches the level of the Pixies’ ‘Tony’s Theme’ on ‘Size Meets the Sound’, one of freshest and most unfamiliar-sounding tracks on the album. Darkness surfaces again on the penultimate ‘Impossible Sky’, while closer ‘Something Surreal’ and ‘It Ain’t Easy’ are two more aching, spare ballads in the vein of ‘Say Goodbye’.
Brighter, less eerie, poppier, sometimes darker, sometimes louder, Bend Beyond makes all the subtle tweaks and changes that you’d expect from a new Woods record this many albums in. It ticks all the boxes and whether it’s better than the last three depends more on which collection of songs you prefer than anything else. I’m happy with absence of full-length jam tracks, liking the new production at this stage in their career and appreciate the seething tone that sometimes surfaces, but song-for-song probably prefer Sun and Shade, even though there’s nothing I’d change about the direction Woods are going. And it might not last forever but three albums after their breakout they’re sturdy.