Woods Songs of Shame

[Woodsist/Shrimper; 2009]

Styles: is that beard taped on??
Others: Meneguar, Woodsist Records

Woods aren't reticent about their artistic aims. Songs of Shame aspires to naturalism, in content and form. The fidelity suggests MiniDisc in a living room, and their sound is pretty woodsy, I guess, at least to the siren-bludgeoned city ears that belong to the the majority of their fans. They like Neil Young a lot (lead singer Jeremy Earl does a thin-voiced impression of him most of the record); they cover CSN&Y’s “Military Madness”; and they allude to Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” on “Rain On" (rhyming "the damage is done" with "under a setting sun”). They are also on Woodsist records, and I bet you can guess what their album cover looks like. I would have suggested some hirsute full frontal on the jacket sleeves, but still. Woods.

In this spirit of forthrightness, then, I offer my knee-jerk reactions, unmitigated by self-censorship and without concessions to critical consensus -- hell, I barely even fact-checked. For example, I think it was unwise of the band to tap Stephen Malkmus to play the first notes of the record, as his self-parodic slanted and enchanted solo throws the relative dullness of the following half hour into relief. “The Number” is addressed to a guilt-ridden "queen" who yearns for the summer to come and absolve her of her sins. The listener, on the other hand, yearns for Built to Spill’s more assured and distinct ventures into Neil Young land. The nine-minute “September on Peter” reminds me how much I dislike the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and that’s about the only thing it does. Not one of the several grainy acoustic singalongs intoxicate like Guided by Voices's "14 Cheerleader Coldfront," despite fragile closer "Where and What Are You," which instills in the listener a deeper respect for the craftsmanship of M. Ward, who never confuses underwritten for ephemeral.

To say that Woods sound like a lot of bands before them isn’t exactly exposing the man behind the curtain, as they don’t try to hide behind much except arguably their lo-fi production and halfway-feigned ruralism. Woods's surprisingly wide and presumably indie-literate audience must like them exactly because they are so familiar and fit so nicely into parameters set years ago, back when bands reclaiming folk and psych for a generation of alienated white kids had social and political resonance.

To be fair and balanced, there are some great things about Songs of Shame. "Rain On" is a classic that had to be written by somebody; it probably should have been The Pixies, but Woods fill in dutifully. On "Gypsy Hand," the evocative, disembodied vocals are unpredictable and near revelatory, which are probably some of the primary intended effects of making deliberately crude recordings. Too often though, on this record and elsewhere, the disconnected vocals lazily substitute for things like artistic honesty and substance. Woods borrow somewhat vaguely from that vaguest of genres, indie rock, and the whole project seems a bit, well, rootless. If they decide to get serious about being a band and not just a project, maybe next record they could take us to their own personal woods, instead of just telling us about boring generalized woods. You know what I'm saying?

So, if I am a little hard on these Woods, it might be for their own good. We live in a time when the smallest of niche interests are given consideration, far outside their niche. If Woods plays at your buddy's apartment, I'd suggest going, but if you’ve got a job and other interests or non-internet friends or anything like that (perhaps some Built to Spill records?), you might not necessarily need them just yet.

1. To Clean
2. The Hold
3. The Number
4. September With Pete
5. Down This Road
6. Military Madness
7. Born to Lose
8. Echo Lake
9. Rain On
10. Gypsy Hand
11. Where and What are You?

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