Underneath the sun-dappled guitar reels, bleary falsetto, and lo-fi hum on Brooklyn trio Woods’ past records, a certain sadness would occasionally surface. Year after year, a new album would show up, replete with pitch-perfect AM pop hooks and crackling, sepia-toned acoustics. At first, the felicitous arrangements would overpower the senses, leading down the garden path to marvel at spring’s bounty. But vocalist Jeremy Earl knew winter would come and if you unpack the poetry of songs like “Suffering Season” (from 2010′s At Echo Lake), and you’ll see that Earl’s warbling about the undeniability of pain and loss. Now in their seventh consecutive year of new albums, Woods hit upon some of their clearest depictions of dark emotions on Bend Beyond, while simultaneously offering an escape in the emotive beauty of their music.
It helps that Earl’s vocals have never been clearer — pushed to the fore rather than filtered by effects or buried in lo-fi haze. The constant tones and intentional enunciation pass him off as a more present Nico, certainly more aware of exactly what he’s singing. Because of that clean delivery, the darker lyrical tones are that much more apparent, more dominant in the mix. They’re still colored by that lilting falsetto, though, a major factor in keeping Bend Beyond from wallowing in its own darkness.
Even in the purest saccharine pop musical moments, Earl’s noting the fading sun. On the joyous “Cali in a Cup”, harmonica hills and loping bass propel a easy-crooning melody. While the triumphant Simon & Garfunkel melodies sweetly sing about moving past weakness, Earl’s not going to ignore the fact that this is a moment, not an eternity. Our weekends are showered, he says, “with flowers from their graves,” the past and future surrounded in death. This reminder, though, manages to compel a more present sense of self, the urgency to embrace the bright moments when they come.
Perhaps this, then, is the act of bending beyond. On the title track, a single chord droning verse builds to the importance of seeing and knowing in the chorus. Reveling in experience seems to be the escape from the darkness. The slinky bass and southern gothic acoustic guitars pulse darkly, but the chorus tames them some. The track finds the borders of normalcy, pushes past them into dark, spacy ether, and returns.
The dark feelings often come in abstract statements of difficulty and anxiety, rather than specific moments of displeasure. This is perfectly summed in the sublime “It Ain’t Easy”, in which Earl laments admitting pain over elegantly plucked acoustic lines and soaring steel counterpoints. “Ain’t it hard to say it ain’t easy?” he twangs, readily admitting that he’s spent time “looking for different ways to make things stay the same.” Again, he’s lost in the fact that the moment cannot be eternal, that instead nothing can always be the same. Similarly, “Is It Honest” talks about how “fucking hard” things can be, even dipping into the primal imagery of how “blood drips from bones.”
While the bubbling tape effects and shambolic rhythms of the instrumental “Cascade” provide some light escape from the typical formula, the super-fuzzy guitars and trilling organ of “Find Them Empty” provide the first true counterpoint. The ’60s psych crowds the spectrum, more claustrophobic than the typically open air freedom of the album that’s best exemplified on “Back to the Stone”.
The haunted beauty of “Lily” cements the album’s themes as it winds to a close, its mix of pastoral and drippy, trippy pop elements fusing under rich, nostalgic warmth. A simple pop melody drives the song’s first half, while a drone of multi-layered acoustic strumming and clapping rhythms drives closes. Earl’s thin falsetto sings the melody, and rich baritone moaning provides harmony. The swipes of guitar are clean and constant, but the chopped tape effects drift into nothing. The constant, though, is Earl’s urgent reminder that even the seemingly inconsequential moments will one day be important: “what a wonderful waste/ oh those were the days.” When recalling life’s pains can sound this nice, wallowing just isn’t an option. It’s better to take the lessons of Bend Beyond to heart, and latch onto the beauty that constantly surround even those dark moments.
Essential Tracks: “Lily”, “Is It Honest”, and “Cali in a Cup”