(Woodsist, out Fri 22 May 2020)
Over the last fifteen years and ten full-length studio releases, Woods have steadily evolved from the early solo recordings of frontman Jeremy Earl to their more amplified psych-folk sound of present. Throughout their prolific career, with the exception of a brief stylistic departure in the form of City Sun Eater in the River of Light, Woods have more or less stayed the course, delivering album after album of solid if formulaic acoustic-leaning Americana in the tradition of contemporaries My Morning Jacket, Timber Timbre, Kevin Morby et al.
After a two-year gap in recording, during which time they worked with David Berman on what was to be his final release, Purple Mountains, Strange to Explain is par for the course, delivering another set of meditative, lo-fi, cabin-in-the-wilderness indie-folk ballads. That being said, what they may lack in ambition, Woods have always made up for in quiet consistency. It is what has earned them their stellar reputation and dedicated fanbase and it’s what makes Strange to Explain a worthwhile listen.
The repetitive bass-line and restrained synths of album opener Next To You And The Sea play second-fiddle to Jeremy Earl’s wispy vocals, only fully kicking-in between verses. With this, the album begins as it means to go on. After 15 years, Woods make the seamless cohesion of vocals and instrumentation look easy – so natural it seems that, if one weren’t paying attention, then they’d barely notice it. This is much to Woods’ credit: these songs feel focused, polished and, above all, impressively effortless. This is because the band is comfortable: rather than change their formula, they have subtly imbued it with new shades and tones. This will please existing fans but, admittedly, there’s not much meat on the bones for any new converts.
There are some definite highlights here. Before They Pass By is one of the catchiest songs they’ve written in years: Aaron Neveu’s drum work is snappy; the hooks are infectious; and Jeremy Earl’s voice has never sounded better. It’s concise, crisp and melodic and could barely be improved upon. Can’t Get Out and the eponymous Strange to Explain continue in a similar vein before instrumental interlude The Void closes out as strong an opening section as any album could hope for. The problem with Strange to Explain is that it never really has faith in itself: the second half more or less mirrors the first and, before one knows it, the album is over and done with, having bundled along nicely without ever really taking off.
Existing fans will find much to love here but, from an objective point of view, one can’t help but wish that Woods would step out of their comfort zone a little more often than they allow themselves. They’ve proven their competence time and again and Strange to Explain is no different in this respect but, after fifteen years, Woods are in serious danger of engaging cruise control.