Over the course of 10 years, Jeremy Earl and his psychedelic Americana band Woods have stayed patiently loyal to their North Star: a quality body of work, in the truest sense of the term. Not only has Earl managed to roughly uphold an LP-per-year pace without ever dropping a true dud, he’s done it while keeping it together as a piston of the Brooklyn indie rock community and leader of his sister project, the Woodsist record label. That’s not to mention, of course, the performance component; with such a deep bank of songs from which to curate setlists, Woods’ live shows should never fall short of well-rounded excellence.
To live and create in this way is to hold true to a mentality of sustainability across art and operations alike. Woods’ roster has had a decently high turnover around Earl — mostly, one assumes, to keep enough butts in seats to accommodate this non-negotiable touring and recording pace. Earl’s vocal tone always stays home at a signature airy, unstrained alto, which should insure its own health for years to come. And the songs are rocks of consistent size and density that embed themselves effortlessly, rarely challenging conventions of structure or length. Rather, Woods brings the flavor through the complementary: textures, peripheral instruments given the fore and vice versa, and Earl’s thoughtfully rich words.
Though the changes from each Woods album to the next are subtle, after a decade, some long-term tendency shifts have plainly revealed themselves. Once an Americana band of the mushrooms-by-the-campfire variety, by 2014, Woods were noticeably more of the coffee-behind-the-wheel kind, confirmed on that year’s album, With Light and With Love. True to its title, it was their brightest, cleanest, and least indulgent yet, built of earnest folk, tried-and-true chord progressions, and a warm simplicity. But while the Woods arc today reads like a gradual process of phasing out the “weird,” the weird remains within them always, deeply ingrained like scar tissue (but not the traumatic kind), which now looks especially cool on them with a clean shirt draped over it.
City Sun Eater in the River of Light is a worthy representation of how far Woods have come, but it might also be their first album to tread this trajectory backwards a couple of steps. From the first minute of its opener and lead single “Sun City Creeps”, it presents the band resisting their own momentum a little bit, not running headlong into darkness, necessarily, but ancient-folk-dancing their way into bolder colors. Fever-dreamy horns and organs pepper further out-there arrangements, and it’s more ominous and worldly than they’ve sounded in a long time — and far more than the hopeful country band of two years ago.
“Morning Light” is a brief four-minute break for some easy-floating prettiness, the one track that sounds as if it was pulled directly from With Light and With Love. But the songs of City Sun otherwise comprise an effort that’s much more trippy and, it follows, a little less immediate. “Meet me on the other side,” Earl sings on the penultimate “The Other Side”, simply putting into words what he had already been beckoning, loud and clear, through the music of the eight preceding songs.
Even with more solid albums than can be counted on one hand already under their belts, the real beauty of this band is only just materializing. A true standout record hasn’t yet been in the cards for Woods, but they are slowly accumulating this massive and magnificent portfolio. A new Woods album will not always be occasion to reinvest, but they’ve become the perfect example of a consistently rewarding band worth checking in on every other year or so. Especially when heard alongside its more relaxed older sibling With Light and With Love, City Sun demonstrates the adept transformations that Woods are capable of pulling off in a narrow timeframe — and delightfully leaves more to the imagination about how beautifully Woods might change over the course of a career.
Essential Tracks: “Sun City Creeps”, “Morning Light”, and “The Other Side”