From 2009 to 2014, Woods were on fire. The lo-fi freak/psych folkers landed at the tail end of the decade, when the high marks set by Deerhunter, No Age, Fleet Foxes, and Real Estate helped bring appreciation to the lo-fi aesthetic. Woods were perfectly capable of ascending on their own – their breakthrough fourth album Songs of Shame propelled them into the buzzworthy conversations scenesters were having.
Every album after Songs of Shame was unique and memorable in its own right; At Echo Lake had this minimalist approach that made them quirky but fun; 2012’s Bend Beyond had a louder and fuller sound that was lush and explosive at times; and of course, their critical darling and my personal favorite With Light and With Love expanded their sound tremendously despite the loss of bassist Kevin Morby. Things were on the up and up for Woods even two years later with the warm and spooky Sun City Creeps.
And then they messed up. A post-2016 election album, written hastily and assembled shoddily, 2017’s Love Is Love tried too hard to make everyone happy in a time of anger and frustration. Maybe it was just ill-timed. Maybe people just weren’t ready to embrace happiness during the start of the madness we’ve endured since. While largely things haven’t improved in the world, Woods, thankfully, have. Strange to Explain is a luscious return to form. Flawed, but luscious.
“Next to You and the Sea” kicks the record off in true Woods fashion – that gentle yet chaotic freak folk they are known for, pairing strong percussion with Jeremy Earl’s candy-coated vocals. This pushes right into the lead single “Where Do You Go When You Dream?”, a standard but still fun Woods track; it doesn’t do anything to expand their repertoire, but it’s a reliable song from the band, with a catchy chorus, and just enough psych-noodling. Strange to Explain is full of these moments, which makes for an enjoyable listen, if a predictable one.
It’s common practice, after a bomb of an album, to retreat back to that comfort zone. It’s not a bad thing, but instead of coming back stronger than ever, Woods just kind of exist on Strange to Explain; they fill the void with the hallmarks of their previous albums but stray away from relevance. What surprises most about this latest album of theirs is the lack of reflection towards their work with the late David Berman on last year’s incredible but somber Purple Mountains record. The unexpected loss of Berman came in August last year,during the recording of Strange to Explain, though there’s little reference to it to be heard. Berman was a towering example of emotive songwriting, and while Woods were delivering excellent indie psych-pop for a decade before, it still makes one curious as to the actual influence Berman had on them.
This is not to say that Woods needed to focus on this event. Strange to Explain feels like a regular Woods record, which is good. It’s a bright and sunshiny spot in their catalogue, providing listeners with a hefty helping of bangers like “Can’t Get Out” and the title track. It also has meandering moments like the two instrumental tracks baked into the record for some kind of reprieve; totaling almost ten minutes combined, “The Void” and album closer “Weekend Wind” seem like afterthoughts on the album, jam sessions included to take up space between the second half of the album’s less impactful cuts.
What starts out as a great Woods record unfortunately peters out towards the end. Regardless, Woods have assembled a worthy “comeback” album of sorts, one that highlights all of their best moments, and even some of their more forgettable ideas.