November 3, 2012

Bend Beyond

The first time I listened to Bend Beyond I thought, This must be what it felt like to be a Dead Head in 1973. That's when Wake of the Flood came out, and it was full of songs the Dead had been playing live for a while, songs they stretched out in concert way past the length of a record side, and it's the same thing here. The title song, the opener on side one, is one Woods ride beyond the outskirts of infinity when they play it on stage, but here it lasts four minutes and twenty five seconds. And on side two, another longtime concert favorite pops in all bright and sunny, not hard and sharp, like live. I wasn't sure what I thought at first.

The second time, it opened, or I did, and I've listened many times since.

It's hard to resist the Woods/Grateful Dead comparison/contrast. There are more contrasts than comparisons, obviously, but still, the confluences are uncanny. Like, 1973. If I'd been a Dead Head then I would've likely found them in '70, with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, their fourth and fifth studio records. These were their breakout releases, not like their first three, not weird and wonderful but not quite there. These were full of songs that reached into your soul and gave it a good squeeze. Same thing with Woods. I got into them in 2009, when they released Songs of Shame. It was their fourth studio record, full of good songs, weird and wonderful, but not not quite there.

There's more: the few bootlegs a Dead Head would've had in 1973 would've been auds from New York: the band hadn't yet decided to give it all away, not straight from the soundboard, anyway, and I assume it's the same with Woods: they're collecting killer soundboards of all their shows, but they're holding. So for now, rabid fans have to make due with stuff snatched by, lossless.

And both Wake of the Flood and Bend Beyond are strikes against the system, fully independent, DIY. For the Dead, it was the first on their own Grateful Dead Records. For Woods, their fourth on their Woodsist label, but their first gatefold with a printed inner sleeve.

So where is Bend Beyond in the Woods/Dead continuum? That's a stupid question. I've listened to Bend Beyond more than a dozen times since I received it in the mail last month from my favorite record store. By contrast, I've owned Wake of the Flood a couple years and I've yet to listen to it six times. Yet I've listened to every song on Wake of the Flood (except "Let Me Sing Your Blues Away", which is a turd) a gazillion times, on live bootlegs, most often soundboard, courtesy of the band, more or less. So by this measure, Bend Beyond is the better record, though it has nothing on it to compare to "Mississippi Half-Step" or "Eyes of the World" or "Stella Blue".

But enough of that. Everyone is saying that Bend Beyond is Woods' best record. The sound is the cleanest of all their releases, yet it's still laden with strange electric fuzz. Jeremy Earl's vocals are at their most lovely. I hum along with the songs until my whole body buzzes with the melody. I especially love "Is it Honest?" -- when Earl sings "and it's so fucking hard." And "Wind Was the Wine", which I hailed on the split LP they did with Amps for Christ earlier this year as evidence that the upcoming LP would be great if songs this good are among the rejects. So I was wrong on that.

I agree, Bend Beyond is their best record. It's a solid, professional, lovable collection of songs that drill right down on your happy/sad nerve. I hope it catches on with the masses and the friendly men of Woods can ride it into long and prosperous lives making beautiful music. It could: I played it recently in one of my writing classes and all the youngins were digging it, even the black ones.

At  the same time, I have to say At Echo Lake and Sun and Shade arrived in my life when my life was changing and my dog's body filled with cancer, and I clung to those records like a Pentecostal to the Holy Ghost. And part of what made me cling to those records was their sloppiness, the way they kept one foot (or at least a big toe) in the junkyard of punk. That sloppiness is still present on Bend Beyond, but it's buffed to a shinier sheen, and I have a steady job now, and a new dog who's healthy and happy. Life goes on. Bands get better, for better or worse. In this case its better for better, not worse like Wake of the Flood, which sounds like muzak compared to the three live records that came out before it. For the Dead, that record in many ways signalled the beginning of the end: their first independent release, on the eve of the debut of the Wall of Sound, which very nearly destroyed the band and led them to a long hiatus and a return with a formulaic approximation of the Dead experience that lasted another 20 years and was often amazing but rarely quite the same.

I'm not trying to imply that the same thing will happen here. Like I said, it's stupid to compare the two.

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