Posts Tagged ‘Woodsist’

RSTB Best of 2018

So, it seems that 2018 is finally coming to an end. It’s been a hell of a year by most standards, but musically its been damn entertaining. Perhaps its fair that there’s some bright spot in all the chaos. Not to diminish the chaos, but when the negativity is at an all-pervasive fever pitch, its feels good to have something to hold onto. I’ll choose to remember 2018 as a banner year for music and for the birth of my second daughter rather than the year that page refresh politics threatened to give me an ulcer any day. Below are my favorite albums of the year, taking care to highlight some that might otherwise get forgotten. They’re in (quasi) alphabetical order with no other particular weight on the list. Keep your eyes out for a few more year-end features this week before I reset for the new year. As always, thanks for sticking with RSTB for these 12-odd years or so.

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Anna St. Louis

Last year Anna St. Louis released a tape of striking, hushed songs on Woodsist’s small Mare imprint. They hinted at an accomplished songwriting talent and showcased St. Louis’ honeyed drawl, but the tape’s warm emersion in hiss and sunny afternoon vibes didn’t mark it as the kind of release that wrestled for constant attention. So, when her debut proper showed up in the inbox a few months back, I wasn’t quite prepared for the sucker punch to the gut it had in store. If Only There Was A River unfolds like a seasoned country-folk record, feeling classic and eternal like the kind of release that’s canon before it ever hits the shelves. It has an ache in its bones that’s raw and real, but St. Louis has wrapped the record in a lush warmth of an heirloom sweater pulled tight against the chill rolling across the plains. She’s teamed up with Kevin Morby and King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas to work the record into a bittersweet brilliance, gathering grey skies and painted sunset hues to color the spare, yet effective ambience around her tales of heartbreak and woe.

Most of the songs on If Only There Was A River have the kind of deep mournfulness and effortless age that seem like they might underscore a key scene in a Cohen brothers film. Her songs feel universal, timeless and torn in the way the catalogs of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Wanda Jackson often do. She’s most like Van Zandt, though, in her use of simple country cool paired with a just enough orchestration that a song feels gilded, but not so much that it feels gaudy. Van Zandt often chafed in this context. The production hung on him a bit loose, like a borrowed suit, but St. Louis is able to work the same juxtaposition to her advantage. She’s the kind that can walk into any vintage store and not only find something that fits well, but make it her own, casting out the ghosts of previous owners on her way out the door.

The album lends itself to multiple listens, touching different heartstrings each time it winds its way around the turntable. St. Louis’ vocals move from whisper to wrench over the course of the record. She’s a master of producing the pang that grips the guts and chokes back tears for undeserving lost loves. While the touchstones of the past cling to the edges of the record, it doesn’t feel like its looking back. She’s earning a place among albums that transcend eras and in that regard she’s positioning herself to stand alongside fellow L.A. troubadour Jenny Lewis as the kind of songwriter who is comfortable in her heartbreak and carving out a sound that eventually belongs only to her. This release is a large step in that direction and a highlight among 2018’s already stellar showing for music. With the arrival of If Only There Was A River it feels like St. Louis has gained a longstanding place among the artists that scar our souls over time.



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Anna St. Louis – “Understand”

Well there seems to be a unanimous love for this today, but hell, “Understand” is a hard song to ignore. St. Louis’ debut tape for Mare / Woodsist was homespun, sounding like a backporch 8-track session that traded in the intimate and spare. Going in with that cassette in mind, the polish on this first peek at her new album, If Only There Was a River, is considerable. The production from Kyle Thomas (King Tuff) and Kevin Morby has wrangled her beautiful songcraft into the kind of lush country that often fell by the wayside commercially but accrued critical fans and massive cult followings. The label has name checked Townes here, and that’s not far off, but this one’s got more of a Guy Clark vibe (think “She Ain’t Going Nowhere”) mixed with the pristine pop of Nico’s less bracing days.

St. Louis’ vocals ring rich and true, imbuing the song with the kind of classic charm that endears vocalists like Françoise Hardy, Bridget St. John or the aforementioned Nico to a certain swath of filmmakers. The accompanying video is a slow crawl through gorgeous terrain and works as a nice backdrop to the stunner that Anna lays on us all with this song. Gotta hope the rest of the album lives up to this, but with that crew attached and her songwriting skills, it might be safe to rest easy in that department. The LP is out in October, again on Mare / Woodist.



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Bonny Doon

Sure there’s something “hazy and pastoral” about the songs that appear on Bonny Doon’s new LP, Longwave. There’s a soft focus around the edges and an undercurrent of bliss, but there’s something I’d have to call aimlessly suburban about the album. Despite writing a good deal of the record in the quaint sounding town of Mystic Lake, MI, I, as a born and raised Michigan lad have to note that this berg is smack dab in the middle of the state. That leaves it surrounded on all sides by the tedious sprawl of Michigan highways. Now, if you’ve never experienced them I envy you, they’re an almost unrelenting expanse of featureless roadway that boasts no change in elevation to break up the monotony. It’s with these concrete threads in mind that I find the core of Longwave’s charm. There’s something soothing in its laconic presentation of a pop that touches on cosmic Americana, but packages it in the ’90s hangover of Alternative that once scraped the radio waves late at night on my Midwestern car stereo.

On long stretches of these roads I’d often console myself with music and with the right kind of bittersweet sway, those dull drags through big box America blur into a heavy sigh. Bonny Doon have captured the swirl of cracked plastic signs lined in squat strips, eking out an existence swaddled in dulled teals and muddy yellow. They’ve found the soundtrack to the American ground loop of small town existence. There’s a great sense of pop that’s thriving under the hood of Longwave, but its ‘from-the-hip’ nature and sauntered tempos lend well to a kind of nostalgia that dredges up a sense memory for smoke stained bowling alleys, Bob’s Big Boys and that smell of rain right before it breaks. Sure the landscape is dotted with cell towers now, but as Detroiters themselves, Bonny Doon must know that some places hold onto the past as modern ruins – industrial dioramas to the American Dream gone south, haunted with the ghosts of fried egg routines and holding fast to traditions no one agreed on. There are plenty of ennui miners these days, but somehow the smoke rings that dissipate around Bonny Doon’s alt-pop, shaded thick with twang and a half awake, half dreaming sigh, evoke an era lost more than most. This one’s a long-latcher, finding its way to your heart and squeezing softly.




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Anna St. Louis

There’s something inviting, cozy even, about Anna St. Louis’ songwriting. She’s exploring a spare form of folk that’s not at all out of place on a sub-label of the Woodsist Family, but she’s lighting a fire that’s a touch warmer than even their catalog usually embraces. Her songs explore a fingerpicked style that’s immediately bringing to mind Jack Rose, James Elkington and James Jackson Toth. She’s got her ramble and knows how to let it ripple through a song, but St. Louis’ strength comes from expanding the atmosphere with that aforementioned heat – a dusty, homey feeling that makes each song feel as lived in and storied as an old family cabin.

The vocals on First Songs hang in the air with no pretension. They’re unadorned but buzzed around by ringing chords like hummingbirds at dawn. St. Louis has found a way to incorporate a timeless country vision into her folk. When those humid, drenched vibes start to drift off into the horizon she tethers the album down with a fireside simplicity that lets the listener into the room, curled on the floor next to her and sleeping out the sickness with the sound of her pepper and woodsmoke delivery. It’s hard not to fall in love with this one on first listen, and repeated plays really only cement the feeling. This album feels like a scratch demo given a larger audience, so one only wonders what she’ll dig into with a bigger budget and more time.




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Woods

Like many, Woods turned to art and music to process their feelings following the fallout of 2016. Love is Love was recorded in the two months following last year’s election. It feels, and for all intents and purposes, acts as a companion piece to their 2016 album City Sun Eater In The River of Light. Love is Love employs some of the same notes of brass and fuller orchestration, the band itself swollen to six members for the recording. The contrast comes in the tone of the recordings. Oddly, the album that preceded the regime change was darker and a bit more foreboding, whereas this record seems to turn to hope rather than the anger that could, and has often been the reaction.

The majority of the songs on the album speak to an optimism that doesn’t feel naive or tone deaf, rather it’s a message of hope through the dark. They’re clearly acknowledging that a lot of people feel fear and anger and confusion and ultimately lost, but that out of those feelings springs community. The core of Love is Love is a feeling that we can all lean on one another and try to exit the other side of the next four years as better listeners, better friends, better lovers, better parents, better children.

Obviously that message only speaks to how you conduct yourself. There’s a lot that’s out of our hands and that anxiety hangs over the instrumental track “Spring Is In The Air,” an almost ten-minute bout of paranoia and psychedelic anxiety. Woods prove that even their own philosophy of love as the weapon can’t curtail all the external forces. It’s unclear how the concept of America will change – to us, to others, to those that see themselves as winning back or losing their own internal convictions of what country and community mean. As the weeks and months following our own blunder have proven, it’s unclear whether others will follow the same roads or choose the steady hand over reactionary change. For all those questions, Woods don’t have answers, but they have hope and that’s not a terrible start. Someone said that poor administrations mean the art gets better. I don’t for a second take that as consolation, and besides, the art was always good, it’s just a bit more resonant now and maybe we’re paying a bit more attention.




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John Andrews & The Yawns

The parameters of Woodsist seem to be about escaping the city, heading to the country and letting the sun-soaked vibes permeate the music. Woods bolted for upstate New York, Herbcraft hold it down in Maine, MV & EE have always held court in Vermont. Their roster is a veritable embodiment of shacking the shackles of civil life and embracing rural enclaves. I get this, it’s a freeing principle and altogether not a bad tie to bind a a roster together. John Andrews has emanated nothing if not pastoral energy in his work with Quilt and in his sideman gigging with Widowspeak and Kevin Morby. He began his solo journey two years back on Bit By The Fang but he crystallizes the laid back strums and porch rockin’ vibes on Bad Posture.

Relocating up to New Hampshire, Andrews distills warm breeze vocals and ripple rock guitars into the kind of songs that seem to hang in the air like slight humidity; affecting and strangely comfortable. He lets tape hiss seep into the mix, humming like a fourth harmonic in the mix and adding to the general Laissez-faire policy of songwriting. Bad Posture is streaked in sunset hues and an atmosphere of country ease, which from all indications is just what Andrews is shooting for. He succeeds handily in summing up the warm wistfulness of just beginning to settle into a new life before the itch of isolation starts to set in. There’s literally a song titled “Relax” in the mix, so you know that things are serious here. Lay back and vacate worries, at least for the next half hour or so, the rest can wait until tomorrow.




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Woods – “Politics of Free”

Woods last album was an absolute high point in their career, a fully realized vision of their cleaned up sound spiked with new obsessions and directions among the sunshine psych. “Politics of Free” leans towards the band’s signature buttery tones and swaying summer vibes, and that’s pretty much what they sum up with their video for the track. Its the band on the road, enjoying the views and finding solace in the small moments. Its pretty much the distillation of what I think of when I think of Woods. If there’s any reason that you haven’t picked this one up already, maybe this is the shove you need in the right direction.

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MV & EE – “Feel Alright”

Word comes down that Matt Valentine and Erika Elder are back in business (they never really stop though right? 60 cd-rs and counting?) and there lies imminent a proper release for Woodsist. The first cut is amiably low key and decidedly running down the gauzier lines of their output. No Golden or Bummer Road in sight here, just the duo relishing in the soft glow of afternoon sun and strumming without worry. The band’s dreamy glow is captured perfectly in a similarly loose clip of the couple wandering the woods around their house with their daughter, directed by Galaxie 500’s Naiomi Yang. Though the band floated in on raft of psych-folk fodder but they’ve tested the time and proven themselves to be an insular unit of good vibes, eking out albums that come packed with the smell of rotting logs, moss and leaves. They’re living the woodland folklore to its core and this one proves it.



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Woods

Phew, are Woods already on their ninth album? Did I read that right? Its a little hard to believe, but back when this site began a few downloaded tracks and a CD from the old Fusetron Sound distro opened up the world of Woods to me and it hardly seemed like those sketches of guitar would wind up as the contender that the band is today. On City Sun Eater Eater In The River of Light the band take their second trip to a studio that’s not a portion of their house and in turn their sound expands in both scope and execution. They’ve shaved down the ecstatic freakout portion of their attack, perhaps relegating it to the stage versions of these songs, but they’ve embraced a whole cadre of elements not seen creeping up before.

There are shades of African funk and jazz, but not to worry they don’t take any sanctimonious mid-aughts or Graceland approaches to it, the sounds just fold in adding ominous layers to the band’s psychedelic folk. There are also stabs of horns that whisper of cantina nights, hazy and menacing and filling out their sound nicely. That menace is an element that seems to color this record differently than any of Woods’ albums past. There are still plenty of moments that yoke in the sun, but there are an equal if not greater number that let in the dark, feeling a chilly pessimism resonate in Jeremy Earl’s lyrics and adding a gravitas and grounding that feels like an omen of these strange times. As these elements coalesce, what surfaces is Woods’ heaviest and most resonant album yet. Its an album that digests anxiety, uncertainty and acceptance in ways we’ll all need to learn to get through tomorrow.




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