In the first shots of the music video for Bend Beyond’s “Cali in a Cup,” a gemstone kaleidoscopes rays of light onto a hand and into the camera’s lens as the band delivers an opening image: “Sundays, as leaves fall on the snow,” all while walled in by a row of surfboards. Harmony, and perhaps more importantly, its pursuit, through and in the face of disparity, as a theme ricochets disarmingly in the belly of the album’s emotional vision. What does a kaleidoscope do if it doesn’t manipulate light against its negative and pattern it in a display of reflections? Appropriately, the single is evidence of the album’s thematic whole, but its sunny, weekend strums and harmonica flares, paired with a surprising lyrical gravity, is just one occasion on a collection of warping folk-rock tracks that snarl, hammer, chime, and sometimes fly. It speaks to the band’s maturity and dedication to craft that just about every track stands out as its own here, one mirrored eye on a head covered in them. Appropriate then, that this is it — Woods’ tightest, tidiest, most approachable album so far. With emotional and aesthetic binary dialed in, what becomes of the polarized focus of Bend Beyond — a veiny, bright pop album from a band that’s revelled in the meander to significant accomplishment previously?
Turns out, it’s pretty much all good. From the wrangling lurch of the title track — which begins the album and treads a cool textural space that’s something like AA Bondy-cum-Crazy Horse, with an ear and tongue for melody and register that’s Woods’ own — it’s clear that the album’s clarity isn’t the pitfall it could have been. Nothing sounds glossy or waxed, and while some will find themselves missing the drizzle and wind of Songs of Shame, an album from which melody emerged like light between the blades of a pinwheel, or the band’s more experimental ventures in their (it’s easy to forget) sizeable canon, sun-covered is an equally good look on these guys.
It’s mostly because, by and large, the songwriting here is just great. “As nice as this is, is it honest?” Jeremy Earl coos in his distinctive, not-so-affected tenor on the album’s third track, and shrugging in response, “It’s so fucking hard to see,” over the tambourines of a happier tune. It’s something to the credit of a legacy of strong acts like, to draw another obtuse comparative range, Simon & Garfunkel or The Shins. The human experience isn’t one color laid on top of itself — it swirls in agreement and dischord, occasionally pairing up in moments like these songs, artifacts in which different registers align in profound, provocative ways. In stories these are scenes, and in music, when they’re good, they’re songs of a certain power and weight. “Lily” pairs an easy melody against frustration and obfuscation, a tape loop cycling in backpedal, and the product is one of Bend Beyond’s most rewarding occasions. “Impossible Sky” takes a chimier analog to that “Sweet Jane” riff into a grinning swoop that curls a thermal flush upwards to the cusp of preciousness and levels out just in time to avoid it. Dangerous territory, really. At its center: “Can’t help fighting the feeling,” “It’s not our time.” Sometimes the abbreviated gesture hits the gut in the just right spot.
That which takes away from Bend Beyond can’t in good faith be classified as mistakes or foolishnesses — things that plague bands of considerable output with less discipline than Woods — at least for the most part. “Cascade,” a trebly noise piece with an arbitrary guitar excursion and an inconsequential bass part, is mostly an interruption, and it takes away from the tracks it squeezes between, the aforementioned “It Ain’t Easy,” and “Back To the Stone,” one of the more organic, haunting tracks — and the one that I feel handles drums the best on the album. “Find Them Empty,” which comes next, is more productive with noise — a hairy dimension complementing the songs forward momentum.
It’s strange — somehow, Woods, a band concerned with dynamics and the exploration of all corners of the proverbial room, with something to say about both and a damn fine way of saying it, has lost more attention than they’ve garnered recently, at least as far as I can tell. It’s a mistake. Here’s a band with as solid a collection of rock ‘n’ roll songs as most others you’ll find in 2012. You’ll find records this year of greater agency, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that renders pleasure with such poignant lightness, control, and willful attention to difference.