Woods’ “Sun and Shade” an Up-and-Down Affair


Sun and Shade is the third full-length release from Brooklyn folk outfit Woods in just over three years, an impressive output rate that seems almost prolific when one considers both the two- and three-plus-year cycles most of their peers operate on, and the double-duty frontman Jeremy Earl pulls as the head of his reliably tasteful lo-fi label Woodsist. Earl’s no Waka Flocka, but a four-piece band making an LP every 13 months — in a calendar heavy on tour dates — is indicative of either uncommon efficiency or undue haste.

Given their quick turnaround time, it’s no surprise that Sun and Shade explores much of the same territory as its predecessors, 2009’s Songs of Shame and last year’s At Echo Lake. Woods draws on two primary influences — the sort of upbeat ‘60s AM pop that I cannot, in good conscience, refer to as “sunny” in this space, and sprawling, psychedelic rock (thus the almost mandatory “freak” modifier for the band’s otherwise “folk” aesthetic) — that are, in terms of song structure, almost diametric opposites.
Woods sometimes attempts to reconcile this divide, letting the wandering guitar lines that lie underneath many of the Sun and Shade’s tracks occasionally come to the fore. But for the most part, Woods is content to accept the dichotomy implied by the album’s title: pop songs and darker instrumentals, jangling acoustic Beatles and tape-hiss-inflected Dead.
And, as promulgators of straightforward pop, Woods is almost compulsively listenable. “Who Do I Think I Am” bounces happily along in self-conscious reverie; “Be All Be Easy” tries on a more ghostly and melancholic but nonetheless melodic three-chord progression. Earl’s vocals, a quivering tenor that gets its emotive resonance from its obvious limits, give both a compelling edge. And both tracks clock in at under three minutes.
Three minutes, it turns out, is an unfortunately crucial line of demarcation for Woods. Crossing that frontier often means Woods indulges jammier instincts, which never manage to carry as much appeal as the poppier tunes. “Sol Y Sombra” rides a bassline not nearly dynamic enough to warrant a runtime of nine minutes, and the tense, double-time reveal the song is both unfulfilling and way overdue.
The subsequent track, “Wouldn’t Waste,” is a creepy minor-key jaunt that hardly plays to the band’s strengths, but it’s at least tight enough to recapture lost attention. “Out of the Eye,” at least, has a little build to it, but even by the false ending five minutes in, you’re ready to move on.
The problem with these two — and a handful of others, including “White Out,” which abandons structure two minutes in for a directionless guitar breakdown — is not simply that the emphasis on the textural subverts the emphasis on the melodic. It’s that Woods isn't layering these textures in meaningful ways as much as sticking them at random to mostly undercooked templates.
Which brings us back to the band’s almost atomically-timed 13-month release cycle. Sun and Shade, at less than 45 minutes in length, is by no means epic. But it often feels like a slog, slowed to a crawl by "shade" tracks that are long on indulgence, short on focus, and only occasionally concerned with keeping time.  The same problems plagued Songs of Shame and, to a lesser extent, At Echo Lake. You get the impression that Woods have made at least one stellar guitar-pop album since 2009; it just happened to have been released in three installments amongst a rash of lesser compositions.
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