Songs of Shame
By David Ritter | 13 May 2009
There’s a b-side kicking around that’s proof of how good this record could have been. On “The Dark,” the flipside to the “Sunlit” 7”, Woods sound positively concise: in just two minutes the band maneuvers through verses, choruses, and a chorus-turned-outro so tightly it embarrasses much of this full-length. Songs of Shame is patchy by comparison, with even its best moments failing to live up to this red-matter-singularity of pop wonder.
Where “The Dark” opens with a compositional element (a guitar arpeggio that underpins the verses), Songs of Shame leadoff “To Clean” begins with a shrug: twenty five seconds of fuzzy, inessential noodling. Once the verse settles in it reveals Woods greatest strength to be their distant, fetching songcraft. Inevitably linked to the scene by the Woodsist roster (Wavves, Vivian Girls, Psychedelic Horseshit, Crystal Stilts), Woods do lo-fi subtly; there’s a homespun experimentation with levels and textures, vocals alternatively revealed and concealed behind toy guitars and foil-thin drums. In its best moments, Songs of Shame offers plaintive melodies set against a gently urgent rhythmic backdrop, evoking a delicate balance of influences (freak folk, Pavement, Guided By Voices) and moods (hopeful, content, melancholy). These moments are too fleeting, however, and one must contend with duds, instrumental jams, and an inconsequential cover to find them.
“The Hold” and “The Number” sustain the opener’s momentum while for the most part keeping the band’s noise leanings subservient to the songs. After this solid opening, however, the album takes a bizarre turn. “September With Pete” finds the band eschewing song completely for an exhausting free-form jam, lasting nearly three times longer than any other track here. Placing a ten minute jam just four tracks in is a game-changer: it’s a jarring about-face that is indifferent, if not hostile, to the album’s verisimilitude. Is this an In Utero (1993)-style attempt to shed the casual listener, or is Woods throwing down the gauntlet, insisting that you come to grips with both its permutations? Perhaps “September” is meant to insist that, yes, the band still is arty and experimental, though this anxiety is unnecessary since their adventurousness even remains clear from the band’s choice of textures in their “normal songs.”
The slight middle third is rounded out by a Graham Nash cover (“Military Madnes”) that is both unnecessary, in that it strums along as steadily as the original, and damning, in that its forceful composition puts many of the Woods originals to shame. Things do get better from there, thankfully—“Echo Lake,” a rhythmically varied and tuneful instrumental, begins the final third on a strong note, and “Rain On” is a late-album climax that almost redeems what has come before it. But, all told, Songs of Shame does little to dismiss worries that the band, with their penchant for homemade cassettes and 45s, lacks the tenacity to hold up over the course of an entire record. As it stands, “To Clean” and “Rain On” deserve their place late on your sweetheart mixtapes, and they’ll be charming in their small doses, but they’re much too rare here, nestled between puzzling decisions and bedroom leftovers.