It’s probably easy to hate on Woods. The band plays what has been invariably described as “spooky campfire folk” with a serious hippie-1960s-classic rock influence, which would be all well and good if they came from where their music sounded like it came from (say, Vermont). Fact is, however, they’re from Brooklyn. Yes, another Brooklyn hipster band, and this one with the audacity to sing songs about woods and lakes when anyone who’s been to Brooklyn knows these things exist there in very short supply.
But what separates Woods from the rest of the bands in their circle (Jeremy Earl, songwriter, guitarist and lead falsetto warbler, runs the band’s label, Woodsist, also home to Real Estate, among others) is the sheer quality of the songwriting. Earl has the talent of making simple proclamations (“Oh, how the days will rain on you”) seem impossibly deep, existentialist, philosophical. While peers like Real Estate traffic in reverby, hazy nostalgia, Woods pursue a straightforward emotional honesty and sincerity, another thing seriously lacking in Brooklyn these days. It’s rare to find a band in modern indie-rock so far removed from the hipster irony and apathy that surrounds them. It’s also commendable; one thing that stands as indie rock’s greatest detriment is its fear of confronting adult, human emotions, retreating instead into nostalgia and feigned childhood innocence. Woods don’t play that game here. Everything is laid naked, as bare-bones as their recording approach, a lo-fi aesthetic that’s justified (unlike some bands) in that the tape-hiss intimacy is a perfect reflection of the frailty of the music therein. There’s a timeless quality to these songs that most bands would surely kill to replicate.
At Echo Lake is Woods’ most enduring document yet. While the stellar Songs of Shame had some killer tracks (“Rain On”, “The Number”), it also had “September With Pete” and other desperate padding/filler. There’s no filler to be found on At Echo Lake. The album’s brief, Weezer-like runtime of twenty-nine minutes is justified in that the music never overstays its welcome. That unfettered approach results in gorgeous two-minute pop-folk songs that simply make their point and leave. If only other bands knew such restraint and self-control (hello there, Yeasayer). It’s what takes Woods beyond mere potential and into the realm of a truly great band with this release. Full of perfect songs, not one of them filler, each one diverse and experimental yet never straying too far from the typical Woods sound, this album may well stand as a future classic release.
At Echo Lake opens with “Blood Dries Darker”, a classic-rock raveup and by far the album’s longest song at four-and-a-half bluesy minutes (the guitar acrobatics on this album impress almost as much as the songwriting itself does). “Pick Up” follows, more of that spooky campfire folk that was only occasionally present on Shame, but which thankfully makes more than a mere cameo appearance here. Album standout “Suffering Season” is third, one of the few tracks sounding truly “produced” here, full of chiming Byrds guitars and Pet Sounds/Phil Spector bells-and-whistles. It’s a new sound for the band, and a welcome one, before “Time Fading Lines” slips in, a gentle country ballad in the vein of “The Number”, but even better. At the album’s halfway mark, even “From The Horn”, a psychedelic instrumental jam, has its place as the perfect interlude and placeholder before moving onward. Lucas Crane’s tape effects hover in the background, all feedback and blurry rumbles, but they serve to effectively underline the sonic point of the acoustic leads, and manage to sound less anachronistic than bands with similar aims.
And so the album breathes from there. “I Was Gone” has a vaguely Latin feel, minor key and swirling, while “Deep” showcases a Paul Simon/Brian Wilson arrangement that brings Earl’s soaring falsetto to a new, spine-chilling level. The album closes perfectly with “Til The Sun Rips”, showing off some of the most gorgeous harmonies this side of Fleet Foxes before this journey to Echo Lake draws to a close.
The progression between Songs of Shame and At Echo Lake is simply stunning. The prior was a collection of songs, mishmash, some very good, others dull or verging on pointless and derivative. At Echo Lake is a body of work, a single statement of artistic purpose, and one that shows a band standing head and shoulders above many of its brethren in the Brooklyn indie-rock crowd. The greatest compliment one could give to Earl and Company is that they are doing something truly unique in an often uncreative genre that in 2010 is verging dangerously on self-parody. That they’ve done it on their own terms is something very special, indeed.