For better or worse, the psych-folk-rock band Woods are probably best known for collaborating with the cult singer-songwriter-poet David Berman before his tragic suicide in 2019. After a decade of relative silence following the disbanding of his venerated music project, Silver Jews, Berman teamed up with members of Woods – Jeremy Earl (guitars), Jarvis Taveniere (guitars), and Aaron Neveu (drums) – to record under the new moniker Purple Mountains, with their eponymously titled debut LP immediately celebrated as an auspicious return. Berman had reached out to other, more prominent musicians like Dan Bejar (The New Pornographers), Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), and Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), but Woods became his band of choice, even though they did not know each other beforehand.
This famed partnership conceals a longer history. Woods started in 2004 and have released 12 LPs, including their latest, Perennial. It’s a long period of remarkable consistency both in terms of regular output as well as with the 1970s psychedelic/folk/garage rock sound they have returned to and updated. Earl also runs the Woodsist record label, established in 2006, which has released albums by Real Estate, Kurt Vile, and Sic Alps, among many others. It also sponsors the Woodsist Festival, an annual, two-day music event held in September in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York. Past participants have included the Feelies, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, Parquet Courts, and Water From Your Eyes. Woods stay busy.
This talent for building musical community has also informed their music. Early albums like Songs of Shame (2009) drew on a collective lo-fi aesthetic that embraced the back porch virtues of imperfectly harmonized vocals, improvised acoustic strumming, and lingering blasts of feedback dropping in. Listening to tracks like “To Clean” or “Rain On” from that album, “Blood Dries Darker” from At Echo Lake (2010), or “Pushing Onlys” from Sun & Shade (2011), one can grasp why Berman would seek them out, given their shared taste. The influence of the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, and Love are apparent, including the spacious, echoey sound production of that esteemed bygone era.
Woods’ recent work has become more refined, partly through a higher premium placed on production value. Their last album, Strange to Explain (2020), marked a significant shift in different ways with Taveniere relocating to California, new parenthood for Earl, and the lingering dilemma of how to cope with Berman’s passing as involuntary bystanders. Though its composition and recording had occurred before Purple Mountains, it was finished shortly after Berman’s suicide. Consciously or not, it retains the veneer of that tragic moment. The album title obliquely gestures to this tangled set of mismatched issues. Its songs like the Steely Dan-ish “Where Do You Go When You Dream?” and the sanguine, horn-accompanied “Waiting Around for a New Me” are about groping for answers to unresolvable questions, ultimately inconclusively.
As hinted by its title, Perennial conveys further growth and a continued sense of renewal. With 11 tracks at 44 minutes, it feels more affirmed and settled, neither breaking fresh ground nor uncritically repeating past ideas. It has four instrumentals – “The Seed”, “White Winter Melody”, “The Wind Again”, and the album closer and title track, “Perennial” – which together impart this attitude of contentment. They are spaced out in such a way that suggests a proto-concept album, but it more likely reflects a staggering of attention for the listener. This LP is comfortable being background music.
Perennial recalls the artists cited previously, though it also shares affinities with contemporaries performing today. The opening instrumental, “The Seed”, has the feel of Tindersticks. Tracks like “Sip of Happiness”, “Little Black Flowers”, and “Double Dream” approximate the Arthur Lee-inspired dream pop that the Clientele have been pursuing. The songs “Another Side” and “Weep” approach the recent work of Teenage Fanclub. Meanwhile, “Between the Past” and “Day Moving On” reflect an insouciant pop attitude shared with Fruit Bats.
Why is this nostalgia for the distant past of the 1960s and 1970s among these different acts? Each has pursued this route for some time, though perhaps it’s become a conscious act of escapism from the fraught times we face, in the same way that Parsons, Young, and others sought to make music that turned away (though not always) from the political violence of that time.
In the case of Woods, this approach seems like an attempt at creating a vantage point – a space for considered reflection apart from the rest of the world. The LP’s instrumentals assist in this aim. Perennial is about return and the comforts of routine, whether in music or life. This is an album about a certain type of mid-career and middle-age acceptance in relation to identity and the passage of time.
Maybe it is too much to attach Perennial and its predecessor to Berman. Beyond his songcraft and writing, the charisma of Berman rested in part with the perception of his relatability – the cool, enigmatic friend of a friend you wanted to get to know. Perennial reminds you that your friend is equally worth getting to know better.