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In “Is It Honest?,” the fourth track of the most recent record from Woods, Bend Beyond, lead singer Jeremy Earl uses his haunting falsetto to ask an aggressive, straightforward question about things in our lives — relationships, friendships, opinions, etc. — that might seem healthy and positive on the surface: “As nice as this is, is it honest?” These dark lyrics float over a charmingly whistle-friendly melody driven by jangling guitars and vivacious drums, and through this juxtaposition, the song creates a disorienting listening experience. You want to feel good. You want to sing-a-long. You want to be happy. But when pausing to think about the lyrics’ underlying themes of emptiness and frustration, that joy fizzles out, and the song’s brightness reveals itself as gloom. This is Woods’ signature sound, and on Saturday night at Music Hall of Williamsburg, the band returned to Brooklyn and put this weirdness on display in pristine form.
It’s taken some time for Woods to figure themselves out. Bend Beyond is the group’s seventh album in six years, which is a bigger discography than most bands can ever dream of — let alone in their first half decade of existence. But what’s even more admirable than the output is the growth in sound. Since 2009’s Songs of Shame, Woods have produced cleaned up, sun-dripped LPs like 2010’s At Echo Lake and last year’s aptly named Sun & Shade. Their earlier work, though, went in a stranger, more chaotic and experimental direction. They’d let guitars fuzz and reverb at painfully loud levels. Being “in tune” wasn’t of much concern to Earl (and arguably still isn’t). And, at least in “Holier Than No One” from 2007’s How to Survive + In The Woods, they even sampled cat meows. Yep. Cat meows.
Through all of this self-discovery, though, Woods have found their footing. On the stage at Music Hall, the boys beamed with confidence. Earl’s falsetto is so odd, so potentially off-putting that, even if his sometimes missed notes are cringeworthy, the earnestness in which he sings still grips. Combine that with his bandmates: bassist/harmonica player Kevin Morby and multi-instrumentalist Jarvis Taveniere. While bouncing back and forth like a slinky, Morby acts like a live-action metronome, jumping to the microphone for harmonica solos, bobbing back for bass lines. Taveniere is more introspective, staring down as he strums, and quietly contributes back-up vocals. On tours, Aaron Neveu plays drums, popping off his own chipper beats, acting as a sturdy foundation.
Highlights from Saturday include a rendition of longtime live-staple (and finally recorded) “Bend Beyond,” a mushy, psych-folk blend of creamy guitar solos and hissing tapes, “Pushing Onlys,” Sun & Shade‘s anthemic lead track, and “Suffering Season,” one of At Echo Lake‘s most howling and shadowy cuts. But perhaps the best moment of the night came near the end. Before their last song, after they thanked the audience for coming out (one of the few times in the night the members actually acknowledged the crowd), my friend noted that the set had only been 40 minutes long. That quickly changed. The band launched into a blissful jam session that lasted nearly 15 minutes, and despite its length and unabashed trippiness, like most everything Woods does these days, it was structured, clean, and exactly what they wanted it to be.
Critical Bias: Earlier this year, according to Last.fm, I listened to the new Woods record 253 times in one week.
Overheard: “Everyone except the lead singer looks like they could’ve been picked out of an Urban Outfitters advertisement.”