With their latest, Woods have managed to make an album that offers the polish of marathon studio sessions without sacrificing the creative spontaneity that has driven them to release seven albums in as many years. After years of sonic experimentation, Bend Beyond displays a relatively straightforward approach from a group of musicians who have developed the maturity and confidence to showcase their raw talents instead of burying them in fuzz and buzz. Typically, swapping lovable lo-fi for polished production values creates a distance between band and listener; but on this album Woods cut out the background noise, and in the process they offer up some of the most honest, intimate moments in their entire body of work.
Though it directly follows the sprawling jam sessions that punctuated last year's Sun and Shade, Bend Beyond feels more like a big budget sequel to 2010's At Echo Lake. On Echo Lake, Woods deftly omitted the exploratory rambling that drives their live shows, yet doesn't fully translate into studio recordings. They ended up with a set of focused blueprints that both mapped out a general plan for mind-blowing live shows and sounded great in their own right. But if Echo Lake provided a blueprint, Bend Beyond provides the finished house.
The album contains several tracks that are begging for an extended cut (the ominous title track comes to mind), but the uncharacteristically lush sound quality and attention to detail in each song makes it impossible to think of Bend Beyond as merely a collection of rough drafts. Seasoned Woods fans will welcome back Jeremy Earl's trademark falsetto, and be pleasantly surprised that they can actually make out the words he's singing. I've always enjoyed Earl's songwriting, so understanding his lyrics on first listen feels like finally having a heart to heart conversation with a casual friend you've known for years. When Earl sings "boiled back on Sundays, as the leaves fall on the snow, you might be a part of it, let the seasons overflow," on "Cali in a Cup," his voice sounds as crisp as the leaves he's describing.
Woods' newfound approachability greatly enhances moments like acoustic ballad "Back to the Stone." And while Earl has recorded his fair share of ballads in the past, the difference in sound quality is the difference between listening to the band play in your bedroom and listening to them play through the wall. Purists might see squandered opportunity in moments like "Cascade," an instrumental that forgoes exploration and instead serves as a two-minute interlude, but the band's emphasis on the short and direct has led to just over a half-hour of music devoid of any throwaways. Literally every song on this album is catchy enough to get stuck in your head, and unlike most pop leaning songs you'll hear this year, that is undeniably a good thing.