Over the years, fans of the band Woods have come to rely on some things. Their albums always sound great thanks to bassist Jarvis Taveniere's uncluttered but sneakily weird production. Their songs, as written by Jeremy Earl, are folk-rock gems with the occasional country-rock ballad and noisy, '70s-influenced, lengthy jam thrown in. Earl's voice is another constant, with his high-pitched twang resonating more deeply than it might seem to on first listen. The band has built an impressive catalog of albums that has only sounded more impressive and accomplished as it's grown. 2016's addition to their canon, City Sun Eater in the River of Light, is a giant left-turn that came out of nowhere and may throw fans for a loop. It seems that since the last album, the band have become big fans of Ethiopian Jazz, like that of the great Mulatu Astatke. Maybe one of the guys watched Broken Flowers, or maybe it was some crate digging that led to their epiphany. Whatever the source, City Sun Eater is obviously informed by the swinging rhythms and honking horns of that style. The first track, "Sun City Creeps," sounds like it was lifted from Astatke's songbook, then run through an indie pop filter and tricked out with a slashing guitar solo. The rest of the album features a few more songs that mine this same territory, and while it's a little weird to hear the band making such a dramatic stylistic shift, it mostly works. Especially on the songs that tilt more toward the Woods' end of the spectrum, like the very catchy "Can't See at All." They aren't Frankenstein-ing the two styles together randomly, there is care and craft applied to making them into something new and something still very Woods-y despite the horns and grooves. The rest of the album is more typical, with laid-back countrified ballads ("Morning Light"), denim-clad '70s rock ("Hollow Home"), pulsing neo-Krautrock ("I See in the Dark"), minor-key folk-rock ("The Other Side"), and heartwarming jangle pop ("Politics of Free") making up the bulk. The production is slightly slicker than that of anything they've done before, which can probably be put down to recording again in a real studio with Taveniere taking more advantage of the tricks at his disposal. Earl, too, sounds like he is upping his game vocally to match the production values, as his singing is even more elastic and affecting than before. Even with the typically strong songwriting and the Woods-iness at its core, it's easy to see how this could be a divisive album among the Woods faithful. The chances they take and the choices they make might leave their more conservative fans behind. Still, anyone willing to make the leap with the band will find that the adventurousness and exploration displayed by all involved pay off with yet another impressive Woods album to add to their collection.
© Tim Sendra /TiVo