New York lo-fi psych folk band Woods are often mentioned in the same sentence as groups like Wavves, Nodzzz, Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts. However, this small glint into the identity of the band is a misleading one. Their name doesn’t denote some kind of drugged-out hipster spelling lesson, nor do their songs evoke a lost Pacific coast kind of nostalgic garage rock weekend, or in the case of Crystal Stilts, an Atlantic coast one. Woods have shared a label with some of the aforementioned bands, but with none of the overbearing fuzz and a lot more rustic openness, the group instead mines a more psychedelic sound that thrives on low-key compositions, jam sessions and J. Mascis-like soloing.
Songs of Shame, Woods’ new full-length album, is an instantly likable and furthermore original-sounding set of songs that, while reminiscent of many lo-fi bands of yore, comes off as entirely novel in 2009. Songs of Shame nods to Guided by Voices and Kiwipop, to early ’90s New England indie and ’60s psych-folk. The combination of these elements makes for a listen that’s only slightly familiar, with simple melodies making a strong foundation for the group’s more playful tendencies. While leadoff track “To Clean” may be a fairly simple pop song, for instance, the Dinosaur Jr. style pyrotechnics strewn about its surface reshape it entirely.
“The Hold” has a sweet melody as well, with frontman Jeremy Earl’s charmingly high-pitched voice leading the song toward its noisier, more freewheeling fade out. “The Number,” however, is the first true stunner on the album, a perfectly crafted track that recalls Neutral Milk Hotel without as many bells and whistles, or Cat Power had Chan Marshall a little more energy during her Moon Pix era. That Woods doesn’t always play it straight becomes apparent during “September With Pete,” a ten-minute jam session that grooves, but interrupts the flow at track four. No matter, one track later the group hops back on to the melodic saddle with “Down This Road,” another mesmerizing track with a swirling instrumental interplay beneath Earl’s vocal. As the song reaches its climax, everything comes together to erupt in an unexpectedly tight breakdown that acts as a stoic foil to the messier verses.
Woods present yet another interesting surprise in the form of a cover of Graham Nash’s “Military Madness.” The group turns the anti-war tune into an earnest, ramshackle indie folk tune that fits in quite well alongside their other tunes. “Born to Lose” is a haunting but brief strummer, while “Echo Lake” makes a diversion into electric instrumental jams, and “Rain On” presents one of the band’s most finely crafted pop tunes. Yet the fast-paced riffs and glorious harmonies of “Gypsy Hand” mark a peak on the album that’s hard to beat in terms of hooks, sonic depth and flawless execution.
With elements that are far from new, Woods manage to cook up a sound that’s all too rare in this era. Certainly, their mix of lo-fi experimental rock and freak folk probably sounds obnoxious on paper, but the band’s mixture of songwriting prowess and innovation is far better than that may suggest. Of course, they’re also the sort of band that would throw a ten-minute improvisational jam on the A-side. Woods offers little in the way of predictability, or sometimes even any sense at all, but in the long run, riding out Songs of Shame‘s oddball wave offers one reward after another.
Wooden Wand – James and the Quiet
Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island
Mount Eerie – No Flashlight
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.