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Woods - Strange to Explain Music Album Reviews

The New York psych-folk band makes a welcome return to form with a dreamy, unsettling, Mellotron-filled album that feels especially appropriate right now.

Dread has been an important ingredient in Jeremy Earl’s best music. Earl, the bandleader of Woods, has a dreamy falsetto that’s offset beautifully by unsettling songs, the type that appeared all over 2009’s Songs of Shame and 2010’s At Echo Lake. Those two albums were Woods’ best, with Earl’s darker reveries nurtured by the band’s remarkably coherent music: warm, comforting psychedelic folk tinged with sadness, confusion, and mystery. Woods’ newest album, Strange to Explain, arrives almost exactly a decade after At Echo Lake and, happily, sounds very much like it, evoking a familiar Woods feeling: that of a blazing campfire surrounded by darkness. The record represents a roaring comeback for the band at a moment to which their sound is particularly well-suited.
Earl was set back on his heels after the 2016 presidential election and the band’s rushed response, 2017’s Love Is Love, was insipid and gooey. At times, its saccharine lyrics could feel like parody, something written by conservatives imagining the taste of liberal tears: “How can we love if this won’t go away? How can we love with this kind of hate?” Strange to Explain doesn’t gesture helplessly in the direction of bad feeling, but leans right into it. And in acknowledging the ubiquity of pain, the album offers to help banish it.
Even the lesser tracks here are not what they seem. The two-minute instrumental “The Void” opens like a standard guitar jam (with some vibraphone mixed in) and arrives at a melodic hook within 30 seconds. But the song remains in motion, running from one neighborhood to the next, with new melodies coming into view every 30 seconds or so until its climax is revealed: not that initial hook but a brass refrain that undergirds the entire thing. It’s fully realized and then it’s gone, a feeling as wistful and complex as arriving at the edge of a waterfront.

If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that many of the strongest songs here sound as if they could have come out years ago. But album highlight “Can’t Get Out,” an anthemic song that combines garage-rock rumble with Dire Straits Americana (courtesy of the Mellotron that’s all over the album), sounds wholly new and remarkably cathartic. It’s a full-throated jam that describes the feeling of suffocation even as it rejects it. The sound is muddier than Woods’ usual, and Earl is belting: “Can’t get back/Can’t get out/Can’t take a breath/Leave me be.”

Woods’ lyrics have always been impressionistic, but even as the quality of the songs here ranges, certain motifs recur: night, void, dreams, immersive experiences that make sense only in the light of day, if they ever do. The spooky title track has the most interesting lyrics, with Earl asserting that “you can reinvent yourself so you don’t slip away,” suggesting, basically, that the way to avoid death is to continually kill off versions of yourself. Yet the ghosts of past selves pile up, resulting in a déjà vu that gives the song, and the record, its name. Naturally, because the subject matter is so unsettling, it’s one of the prettiest tracks on the record.

It’s tempting to hear this album as an elegy for David Berman, for whom Woods served as a backing band in the months leading up to his suicide. But Strange to Explain was written and recorded before that collaboration came to full fruition. Berman’s demons may have informed Earl’s, as a recent New York Times profile about their collaboration suggested, but Woods are perfectly capable of turning their own nightmares into compelling music. Late in the album, on “Light of Day,” Earl turns his attention outward. As with “The Void,” the song takes its time revealing itself, with a bridge that feels like a hook preceding the actual chorus. The lyrics are angry, as Earl sings, “You can fill your void with an empty cup/It might tear you apart, almost every night.” His voice couldn’t sound any sweeter.

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