In talking to Pitchfork ahead of Woods’ seventh LP, 2012’s Bend Beyond, songwriter Jeremy Earl, along with multi-instrumentalist and recording guru Jarvis Taveniere, spoke about a cleaner sound for Woods and hinted that their home recording might have run its course, with traditional studios seeming the next logical step. Alas, two years later we have Woods’ eighth LP, With Light and With Love, recorded in a goddamn, fancy-ass recording studio. But while this is a primary talking point for this album, the weight being placed on the importance of the equipment and location is likely overstated.
See, when you run a label like Woodsist and self-record for about a decade, it’s unlikely that you wind up sounding like the no-fi fuzz of Times New Viking, unless expressly trying to do so. Woods has sounded pretty far from the lo-fi you typically associate with Slanted and Enchanted, even as far back as their first minor success, 2009’s “Rain On”.
If anything, the increased production value pushes Woods into the NPR and Wilco territory that they always seemed to have little interest in. “Moving to the Left”, the most overtly pop-friendly song Earl has ever written, can drift into this mature sound with ease, without seeming like it’s pushing the band out of its niche. The move recalls the direction in which Iron & Wine have taken with their sound over the last couple of albums.
Iron & Wine is actually a good comparison, because as Sam Beam’s songwriting has seemed more deliberate over the years, the urgency of the project’s music has also waned. For Woods, the death of Earl’s father can be heard on songs across the last two albums, and emotional forthrightness has never been a problem for the band. On With Light and With Love, the band sadly seems a little hollow, a trait magnified for having had so much success on previous albums. Those recordings were often characterized by fits of creativity and instantaneous recording with few overdubs. Plotting out the road map for this newest affair is a detriment.
That isn’t to say that we should begrudge a band changing the formula this far into their career. Regardless of how the album was made and the impact of those decisions, the overall songwriting found in the collection is just not as strong. Maybe Earl was a better songwriter when working more fluidly and quickly. Maybe this planning took some of the freshness out of the finished product.
The album’s high points still pack the urgency and emotional stakes that Earl’s previous albums conjured easily. The nearly 10-minute title track doesn’t need to be so long, most of the filler consisting of extended guitar noodling, tape hisses, and noisy, sloppy, emotional outpouring. But Woods has spent albums trying to perfect the long song, and this might be their best example yet. On the other end of the spectrum is “New Light”, a song that rests on Earl’s often underrated vocal range. The song indulges in peaks where his voice approaches its limits, holding its ground and laying the foundation for the band to join in, blissfully tight in their execution.
In recent years, Earl has taken kindly to interviews, where once he hung back. And now the change in recording style. Both signs could point to a desire for a little bit more success. While With Light and With Love might sound more instantly accessible than previous Woods albums, it also shows that it might not be a good thing for Woods to tinker with their most defining quality: the intimacy of their songs. It becomes harder to feel as much about the music when it isn’t apparent that the band feels as much in its creation.
Essential Tracks: “With Light and With Love”, “New Light”, and “Moving to the Left”