Monday, February 1, 2010

The Woode West

Part Van Morrison, part Mountain Goats, prolific songwriter and videographer Woode Wood was one of the first locals I uncovered when I began blogging in Austin and remains one of the most unique. Wood's calling card is the delightful low-key videos he produces to accompany most of his songs. Some of these short films deal literally with the songs' subjects. Others spin off in different directions, encouraging the listener to approach the music from another perspective. And some just communicate the modest joy of playing music with your friends outside when the weather's nice.

Without the benefit of video accompaniment, Wood's material can't always stand on its own. The progress between his 2005 LP Whole 'Nother Life and last year's Leap is tangible. In the time between, the songwriter figured out which elements of Life's production suited his material and which didn't. The totally inappropriate flashy guitar licks that mar tracks like "Words" on the first record have disappeared by Leap, replaced with a more ramshackle blend of sax and fiddle. Although Leap still has programmed drums, they've evolved from the leaden, monotonous strokes of the debut. Bass and other accompanying instruments sound much more musical, less imposed. Backing vocals are a sore spot on both records, as they trend towards the dissonant and random. Wood's own husky voice tends to wander around in pitch a bit, something that's not necessarily noticeable or bad... until the harmonies kick in.

Without visual accompaniment to provide forward progress, the weaknesses of Wood's approach are more glaring. His lyrics are always thoughtful, but the recurring similarity of so many of his songs makes focusing on them very hard, particularly after listening to more than a handful of tunes in a row. Rather a lot of the tracks on both albums oscillate predictably between two chords. Changes arrive too seldom and aren't rhythmically distinct. Other instruments are overdubbed to provide color, but the trick wears thin quickly as vocal melodies are often identical to each other from one song to the next. Attached as they are to mechanical drum performances, the acoustic guitars lose all melodic quality and become a wall of repetitive noise. Except for one saxophone solo, "Eye Two," that has no musical or thematic connection to the rest of the music, Leap is all variations on a single idea.

Wood should be praised for the fact that he has a consistency of message in his lyrics. He has a worldview, a generously spiritual positivity that might be the best thing about his work. Unfortunately combined with the limited range of the music the repeating motifs in the lyrics make many of the songs utterly indistinguishable from one another. Many of these compositions could be merged together into one long song. That might be more interesting than what does appear on Leap in a lot of cases.

Although I didn't care that much for either of his records, I still think Woode Wood is a cool and unique talent that Austin is lucky to have. His difficulty translating his magic to CD is not an uncommon problem. Primarily I think that in his curiosity to see what's possible during a recording project he's losing sight of the basic elements of his sound. Neither Leap nor Whole 'Nother Life has many minimal, acoustic moments. The multitracking process, built around those resentful canned drum parts, takes a lot of the immediacy and warmth out of Wood's simple guitar and vocal styles. There's far more personal magnetism and alchemy at work in some of his brief solo and duo videos than there is across the whole of these two records. For his next opus, I'd like to hear him move both backwards and forwards -- for a few songs he should use a full band and start pushing his boundaries into more complex structures, but for the bulk of them, he should stick to the bare essentials. And no drum machines!

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