Review Summary: The shape of summer to come.
As much a collective and an ethos as a functioning band, the increasingly well-groomed Brooklyn outfit Woods had released five albums in five years up to and including 2012’s high water mark Bend Beyond
, yet it never really seemed like they had strayed far from their roots. The psychedelic jams were a bit more clear-eyed, and the production increasingly sharp, sure, but Woods remained Woods – a quirky, stony Americana band letting their freak folk flag fly. With Light & With Love
is a thoughtfully considered attempt to broaden their still relatively narrow reach, moving the group’s sack of Nuggets
imitations, roots-rock grooves, and jam band dalliances into nicer studio digs and creating the band’s most chiseled set of tunes yet. For all of Woods’ seemingly makeshift sound and uncanny ability to make a studio cut sound like a tossed-off practice session, it’s the group’s significant songwriting talents that have enabled them to continue on more or less as they’ve always wanted to. With Light & With Love
, then, is the less unkempt cousin of its predecessors, finely polished over what constitutes a lengthy recording time for the band (two whole years!). As an attempt to bring in more fans, it should have no problem accomplishing its mission, airplay and word of mouth permitting.
I’m also happy to report that, mainstream baiting notwithstanding, With Light & With Love
is the best Woods record yet, a tinkering of the charmingly sincere folksiness of Bend Beyond
into something even more muscular and full-bodied. There’s still some of the raggedness of their earlier records, a trait that makes the exceedingly well-crafted melodies and band interplay here seem natural and effortless. The title track, in particular, comfortably encapsulates their entire career into an extended instrumental bridge that stretches out into the band’s longest song to date before crashing back into that gorgeous chorus. It’s a bit of a tease, and surprisingly effective in how it characterizes its wanderings not as an indulgence, but as a necessary outgrowth of the song's core melody. One listen to With Light & With Love
, though, does not leave you asking for longer songs. These are cuts that work well within the confines of three or four-minute pop, be they blissful psychedelia or well-worn country roads. “Shepherd” opens the record on a mournful alt-country note, the pedal-steel shuffling ever onward. “Leaves Like Grass” rumbles along a busy, bubbling bass line and vocalist Jeremy Earl’s lilting vocals, while “Full Moon” revolves around a sparkling guitar hook, that sunny ‘70s California feel clouded a bit by Earl’s hangdog singing. Earl’s high, reedy voice has always been the perfect one to cut through some of the sonic soup that characterized their prior work; here, his vocals work in tandem with the sinewy guitar lines and the classicism of the pop melodies packed into every song, becoming less a guiding light and more another instrument to play along with the indelible hooks weaved into each tune. It’s a testament to the group’s growth as a band that these tunes sound just as expansive and thorough as any in the band’s untidy and more stereotypically “adventurous” back catalog.
Earl’s rather indistinct lyrical presence – talk of the light and the dark, a nagging sense of foreboding usually washed away by the bright melodies and Woods’ generally amicable mood – may turn off some listeners, but it’s an essential part of With Light & With Love
. For all the accessibility of this album’s production, it remains a nakedly emotional release from the band. Stripped of the instrumental murkiness that some of their earlier records had immersed themselves in, it reveals a band and a singer confident in their ability to stand apart. In this aspect, With Live & With Love
is Woods in their purest distillation yet. Earl’s presence has never been as integral as it is here, warding off the shadows that creep into “Only The Lonely” and the self-doubt in “Full Moon” and maintaining a grounded, uniquely American perspective on the Big Themes in life. “Your only hope for tomorrow, is to start anew,” he sings on “New Light.” It’s an eternally optimistic cliché Earl, Woods, and the multifaceted activities of the Woodsist collective have embraced to the point of rendering its inherent cheesiness moot.
With Live & With Love
closes with the atypically haunting “Feather Man,” a strangely unsettling ballad that borders on dirge territory and features lyrics that are even more opaque than Earl’s usual. It’s an odd way to end what is, on the whole, the kind of record to soundtrack sunbaked summer months and the kind of events you prop up in your memory as emblems of better days. It’s a nifty little wink to their deep, twisted roots, a final reversal to what is a deftly textured record on closer inspection. As the album's closer, “Feather Man” is perfect, a cryptic question mark for a band that’s never been too concerned with a neatly packaged resolution. Another cliché, then: With Light & With Love
reminds us that asking those questions is often more fun than finding the answers. I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way.