Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Album: At Echo Lake
Rating: ******** (8/10)
OK, I admit, I'm one of those fickle critics (or wannabe critics) who build a band up and then suddenly turn on them and tear them to shreds. I would fit in well in the UK, where they love to generate insane amounts of hype and declare a band the best thing since the Beatles, then in a fit of sobriety or shame or vengefulness, turn the band into the butt of a national joke. You can't with them, or me.
So last year around this time, Woods were one of my favorite bands. But it's been a long year and my thoughts on music have really evolved since then. I wouldn't take back my reviews of Woods or revoke the nine(!) stars I gave their last album, but I am certainly far less excited about anything related to folk music than I was at the beginning of 2009. The ultraconservative attitudes that have hijacked indie rock have grown increasingly obvious in the last year and I've come to see any music that doesn't challenge the backwards backlash as a dangerous and cowardly abuse of the art form.
On the other hand, I can't ignore or deny that Woods write beautiful music. And I wouldn't even argue that they are derivative. They have forged a unique sound that, yes, pulls audibly from Neil Young and the Grateful Dead but spins it as something distinctly post-2000. Drenched in LSD, their warbly, poppy folk and shimmering, folky pop conveys an intangible sense of mystery, like the band is playing from very far away.
At Echo Lake is pretty much like every other Woods album. Of the four, this has the most consistent quality of songs - and keeps them all well under the five minute mark. The arrangements are the richest and most complex the band has offered to date, showing a growing musical sophistication.
The real skill that has always set Woods apart is their ability to write beautiful melodies and Echo Lake shows they haven't yet exhausted the well. Centerpiece "Time Fading Lines" is a particularly notable melancholy masterpiece. Early on in the album, "Suffering Season" shows Woods exploring new layers of sound while earthy, simple songs like "Get Back" keep the record down to earth. And despite a more major-key opening than previous Woods albums, that same darkness lurks just behind the music.
Woods remain one among the finest songwriters on the indie scene today and their sonic experiments are distinctly their own. After seeing Sleigh Bells tonight, a folk-tinged lo-fi psychedelic band seems pretty insignificant in the progression of pop music, but this is pure beauty, at once saccharine and haunting, in sonic form, and that's worth a listen or ten.