By now, Woods’ music shouldn’t be so effective. Since their 2009 breakthrough Songs of Shame, the prolific Brooklyn group has essentially recreated the same album of ramshackle psych-folk once a year, often with similar song titles or lyrical themes. But they’ve morphed into one of the most dependably great acts around through superior songwriting, rising above the lo-fi graveyard to craft perhaps their best offering yet with Sun & Shade.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Woods might hit a stylistic dead-end at some point. Their sound isn’t especially new, drawing from that halcyon wellspring of inspiration, the late-60s to early-70s. But where the band differs is the overall feel, a wholly original atmosphere that enshrouds everything they do. Jeremy Earl’s high, earnest croon acts as the glue that holds together the bare-bones instrumentation. The tempos vary from verse to verse, the guitars are often out of tune, busted notes stick out like sore thumbs, and consequently everything feels like an exciting, warts-and-all first take.
Closer listening proves the songs are hardly tossed-off. Earl is one of the most impressive melody writers around, and each gnarly guitar solo is carefully constructed to work within these frameworks. He’s obviously pushing himself as a songwriter, trying to best himself at every turn. Take the last three album openers: Songs of Shame’s “To Clean” blasted out of the gate with Crazy Horse-like mania, but the dynamic “Blood Dries Darker” of At Echo Lake showed the band was capable of simmering their psych until the very end. And now “Pushing Onlys” puts the notch even higher, with buoyant, golden harmonies aiming for an emotional high unlike any in Woods’ career.
Sun & Shade is a perfect summation of the group’s overall aesthetic. The band works with both light and dark shades, switching off between carefree bliss and deep sadness and fear. “I won’t believe that it can’t get worse,” Earl eerily sings on “Any Other Day,” an early-album standout that shows off the group’s impeccable pop mastery. This is also the most varied record in Woods’ lengthy discography. Tribal rhythms, Grateful Dead-like folk-rock, wistful soul, and jangly bubblegum pop all make appearances. But Woods don’t beat you over the head with their influences; they take those sounds and make them their own.
Over a third of the record is given over to two songs: “Out of the Eye” and “Sol y Sombra.” These are nods back to the band’s more experimental roots, with added Krautrock rhythms that propel the various tape effects and guitar meanderings into a coherent direction. Even when surrounded by a treasure trove of pop perfection, these experiments are worth diving into. Woods can’t seem to relinquish their darker past, and that’s what makes them so effective.
There’s the tiniest bit of sheen to Sun & Shade that’s worth noting for such a defiantly lo-fi band. Maybe they can afford better equipment, but it’s more likely a result of the group realizing what a musical gold mine they’re sitting on. That fraction of fidelity elevates Woods to a new level that didn’t seem possible (or even desirable) a few albums ago. Here they’ve proved that their success isn’t all charm or happenstance. Woods have gotten to this point by following every creative impulse, and they seemingly have a million more possibilities stretching out ahead.