With Light and With Love is Woods' most cleanly produced record to date, and the brittle edges of their sound now melt around bright, bittersweet songs.
There's something in the consistency of Woods' records that makes the band difficult to talk about. It's hard because the draw of these songs -- ramshackle acoustics, Jeremy Earl's honeyed falsetto, tangled yet sunkissed hooks, and experimental edge -- are easy to spot, but the overall, often fascinating effect of these elements is tougher to pin down. There's something you can't quite put your finger on, even if the feeling these dusty songs give is deeply textured.
But that consistency rarely registers as repetition. 2011's Sun and Shade followed At Echo Lake, the band's most consistent record to date, and blew the doors open with more experimental jam pieces than we'd heard on one record from Woods before. Their next record, Bend Beyond scraped some of the lo-fi fuzz off the top, and in its newfound clarity sounded more earthen than dusty, more swampy than sweaty. It was a more muscled version of the kind of folk-rock the band has been, by degrees, making its own over the past near-decade.
With Light and With Love continues both the consistency and the progress forward. It is, first and foremost, the band's most cleanly produced record to date, and the brittle edges of their sound melt sweetly as a result. It puts Earl's voice higher up in the mix and it shows an impressive strength, even as it retains its ethereal quality. And the band sounds full here -- organs, guitars, bass, drum, and vocals rising together and converging into a muscled sort of fragility. The sound of this record is capable of washing over you or splashing you in the face, and both are invigorating.
The production here often plays up the country influences that clung to the fringes of earlier records. Opener "Shepherd" is full of swaying pedal steel and crisp acoustic strumming. "Leaves Like Grass" is a big country rocker, full of muddy hooks and deep, shuffling percussion, while "Full Moon" takes these elements and twists them into country AM-gold, falling somewhere between the Allmans and the outlaws. These songs are foundational, laying the groundwork for the varied set of sounds that tangent off of them. There's the overcast rumble of "Moving to the Left", driven by humming bass lines, running up against the sunburst-folk of "New Light", a syrupy tune haunted by guitar lines that run backwards. Organs render "Only the Lonely" white bright, even as Earl's vocals lilt sadly, while those same organs throw an overcast pall over the surf-rock riffs of "Shining".
Light and dark clash often in these songs -- Earl sings often of light directly -- and nowhere is this more apparent than the title track. The song runs for nine minutes and serves as a sort of centerpiece for the record. It takes the band's love of experimental jams and ties them to Woods' constantly re-sharpened knack for songcraft. The results are brilliant. Earl strings lines together in puzzling ways, playing with enjambments to keep us guessing. "Death brings a ghost," he sings, "with light and with love, / Tell me what to do." Now whether he wants to know what to do with the ghost or with the light and love is hard to tell. But the confusion is enlightening in that it ties into some major themes in the record. It's helpful that the middle of this song falls into frustrated, clustered-up guitar solos that eventually straighten themselves out into assured, even swaggering hooks. When the chorus comes back in, Earl's worry ("Coming on strong / Don't know what to do") suddenly sounds like freedom. The ghost feels far off, the light and the love ever closer.
And so the album deals in leaving the past behind and embracing some sort of present. The light is now, something to hide the shadows, and if the past isn't quite done with us in these songs, it's at least held at bay. Earl seems to know that as laid-back and breezy as the present sounds here, it's hardly easy. "Is it enough to unwind?" he wonders on "Leaves Like Grass", giving us another moment of double meaning where we can wonder if Earl means he's left enough behind to relax in the here and now, or if a life of unwinding is enough to sustain a person. The freedom of leaving the past behind still leaves us confronting a tomorrow that "comes too soon", with the next thing.
Yet Woods feels content here, and With Light and With Love strikes a complicated, rewarding balance between the grip of the past and the possibility of, if not the future, than at least the now. The band's recent album titles have always suggested both the natural and the astral -- At Echo Lake, Sun and Shade, even Bend Beyond to an extent -- and if With Light and With Love presents as more abstract, it plays just as organic (sometimes more so) than its predecessors. There's a risk of exposure in the kind of clear production this album provides, especially for a band with a historically gauzy sound, but the risk yields high reward here. Turns out that on this album you get to hear Woods in perhaps the purest form yet, even as you know that form will change again for the next record. Until then, embrace the bittersweet now.