When it comes to garage bands, you’ve got to ask: what exactly are they doing differently? The twangy riffs and simple melodies seem to have all been written. If garage rock is rock and roll stripped to its roots, then it might be the prime place to make a diagnosis of the state of rock and roll in general. In other words, it seems there’s hardly anything new at this point. Still, the lack of novelty doesn’t always get in the way of enjoying a band. Many garage bands cover for the innate lack of originality of the genre with a schtick: they dress up silly or they sing only about monsters or they pee on each other. At the very least, you hope they put on good shows, because a lot of the allure of garage rock is in the live feeling (and whether that can be captured on record).
The thing that makes Woven Bones unique is their pounding drums,and this definitely gives the album a live feel. From the fast-paced opener “I’ll Be Running” (which may well be the best song on the album—why are so many bands putting their best song first nowadays?) to the end, drummer Carolyn doesn’t ever let up. And the bassist, Matty, plods away heavily along with the drums. At times it’s hard to tell these two apart; they lock together in deep rhythm and drive the song along. No cymbals interfere with the depth of the drum sound: all of the high end is left to the vocals and guitar.
The drums actually take over the sonic space that a vocal or guitar melody would typically occupy in a pop song. Andrew Burr’s vocals don’t often venture out of the range of an atonal growl—with a hint of a retch, and sometimes maybe a little hiccup to end the line—and his guitar is so fuzzy and drenched in reverb that its main addition to the sound is a wash of that great lo-fi vacuum cleaner texture rather than anything resembling a riff or a melody. Sometimes, like on “You Already Knew”, the guitar will come out on top with a nice garage style melody. On “Creepy Bone”, the garage-like riff is instead led by the bass, with the guitar only providing a squawking echo in the background. But most of the time, the parts of the song that one might expect to be front and center—guitar and vocals—cede the space to the intensity of the rhythm section. And this turns on its head the typical garage-rockabilly arrangement. With such a pared down drum kit, you wouldn’t expect the strongest part of the song to rely on the drums. They’re just there to provide a beat.
In the absence of melody, though, the rhythm section bears the most weight. More often than not the drums and bass keep it up. For the faster-paced songs, the combination is particularly successful. The drum pattern on these songs, like the opener and “Your Way With My Life”, is mesmerizing. It goes beyond typical drone. You can almost hear a melody being beaten away on the toms and bass drum, as if it could push the vocals into a tonal range.
In their bio, Woven Bones cite the heavyweights of the noise pop, space rock, and psychobilly scenes as influences (Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, the Cramps). This mixture of genres aptly describes the sound they make. But do they bring anything new besides this combination? Certainly more could be made of the vocals and guitar. With the current equation they will run out of things to do fairly quickly. One direction the band could develop is to be noisier. The guitar provides a steady drone of fuzz for the album, but it doesn’t do anything weird. When its notes become recognizable, they fall into the predictable melody lines of garage rock. As for the vocals, the raw chanting with slight hints of tone begins to wear thin.
As far as droney garage rock goes, Woven Bones are already there. They’re loud and mean and hypnotic. In less than 30 minutes, these nine songs are able to stretch the sound and fully leave their imprint on your ears. Sometimes, however, the album starts to seem much longer than it is. Especially on the slower songs—typically the bulk of songs for a drone band—the sound begins to become a little boring since there is not much going on. Now, a raw roots band doesn’t need to be complex and layered. But Woven Bones do need to find a way to successfully bring the high and low ends together in order to be truly great.