The fact that Woods has released seven albums in the last seven years isn’t the most remarkable thing about the Brooklyn folk band’s recording output. What stands out beyond the steady delivery of their music is the consistent quality that has characterized their songs, reaching a high enough peak to garner national attention by 2009’s Songs of Shame but leveling off to the point where fans could take them for granted and non-fans could find the group easy to ignore.
On their newest offering, Bend Beyond, songwriter Jeremy Earl offers what could be a summation of Woods’ career thus far, singing “ain’t it hard to say that it ain’t easy, looking for different ways to make things stay the same.” The song, “It Ain’t Easy,” may be a solemn reflection on a lost friend, but this line reminds listeners that the subtle polishing of Woods’ sound, the slight diversions into unchartered territory, and the band’s ability to write four or five songs on a yearly basis that will sweep them off of their feet is not necessarily playing it safe. Yes, Woods is slowly disproving the idea that change and growth are the same thing.
With the opening title track, Earl wastes no time showcasing a new trick while not straying more than a stone’s throw from the Woods folk-psych comfort zone. “Bend Beyond” has already become a live staple, but Earl seems to realize that what makes the band tick live isn’t necessarily the best choice when recording. Instead of the long diversion in the middle of the song that the band jams out at their shows, “Bend Beyond” gets just a couple of minutes of psychedelic guitar noodling before slamming back in with the powerful chorus. It’s an impact song, and an instant cornerstone of the Woods canon.
Bend Beyond further tweaks the band’s career trajectory as the album progresses. First single “Cali in a Cup” is as breezy and comforting as the title suggests, aided by a distant harmonica and distinct understanding of West Coast attitude that is rare from East Coasters, but understandable when you consider that Woods hosts their annual Woodsist Music Festival in Big Sur. “Is It Honest” tosses in a rare expletive, with Earl announcing at the chorus’ conclusion that “it is so fucking hard to see,” just a line after declaring that “in dreams we move closer to sunsets.” Only with lyricists that rarely curse does “fuck” hold the weight that it does here, but Earl, always simple and straight-forward in his language, understands the power that words can hold and lets this small bit of profanity loose that feels like a whole career coming.
Even on a track where Earl doesn’t say a word, the brief but essential bit of pacing that comes in “Cascade,” Woods reign in their tendency to extend their instrumental jams. On their previous release, Sun and Shade, Woods took their jam sessions beyond the limits of tension, running on for seven minutes at a time and losing the momentum that the album built. “Cascade” reduces this to just a couple minutes of transitional sounds, feeling necessary rather than excessive and moving into a middle portion of the album that shows Woods backtracking a bit into familiar, though still thoroughly enjoyable, territory.
But, where Bend Beyond is most successful is revealed in the album’s final two numbers. You can take away Woods’ undeniable chops and the trademark textures created by tape-effects wizard G. Lucas Crane, and Earl could still effectively elate listeners with the immediate infectiousness of a song like “Impossible Sky.” And, quickly moving from images of technicolor sunsets and evocations of the possibilities of youth, Earl closes on the haunting “Something Surreal,” where his unwavering, wordless falsetto brings the listener back to earth; the songs together run the gamut of human emotion in about five minutes. It’s a brief culmination of practice making perfect, with Earl and his band showing why they make a new album every year—because more and more often they are getting it right.