There's been much conjecture on how to get your music heard in a time of eroding CD sales. Many bands are encouraged to embrace technology and gimmicky marketing schemes. There is also the Woods way. Since 2006, the Brooklyn indie-rock band has released an album every year on its own label, Woodsist. That's partly a matter of being prolific, but it also helps to not get bogged down in the mundane PR machinations that eat up large chunks of musicians' lifespans.
"It makes me wonder why anyone goes through that process," multi-instrumentalist Jarvis Taveniere says. Although Woodsist does use a regular publicist, its grassroots approach to getting word out seems a far cry from the more strenuous efforts of bands who prefer leaving trails of puzzlelike clues in advance of record drops (see Arcade Fire, Broken Bells). "Not that we're a model of success," he continues, "but it's weird that people write a batch of songs and slave over it and think about who's going to put it out and how they're going to market it."
The Woods way, by contrast, is simply to record songs whenever inspiration strikes and eventually group kindred recordings into an album for low-key release. Despite what Taveniere may say, this isn't a bad model to follow. Making great music helps, but maybe the Woods way also helps make the music great. The 2009 album Songs of Shame scored a Best New Music on Pitchfork, and Woodsist has released records by buzz bands like Real Estate and Wavves as well as San Francisco acts including Thee Oh Sees, the Fresh and Onlys, and Sic Alps. While not quite a cottage industry, it's a solid example of DIY done right. Woods' latest album, At Echo Lake, is available digitally and on CD, vinyl, and cassette.
Like past Woods albums, At Echo Lake is lo-fi and ramshackle. Amid splashy, twangy licks of Byrds-ish guitar and songwriter Jeremy Earl's wavering squeak, country and folk influences are filtered through an experimentalism learned from '90s microlabels like Shrimper. By way of comparison, "Pick Up" has the rickety strum of early Sebadoh, whereas a sleepy breeze of Shins-worthy vocal harmonies opens "Deep." A pop core peeks through the songs' fuzzy tones, and the band's country shadings are more pronounced than in the past. "As an inspiration, it's not a new thing," Taveniere says of the country influence. "It only comes through on a couple of songs pretty heavily, but not the record as a whole. It was just one thing we were exercising."
The band is a functional four-piece, but Taveniere and Earl alone record the albums. Taveniere casts himself in the role of handyman, adding that he's more focused on the recording process than the songwriting. Given Woods' casually intuitive approach, it makes sense that a lot of material gets abandoned while the band feels its albums out. Taveniere recalls a year-old iPod playlist of songs he thought would constitute At Echo Lake, noting that only four actually wound up on the record. "Some things never get finished," he says, "and there's a lot of leftover stuff."
At Echo Lake opens with its longest song, the psych-tinged "Blood Dries Darker," but draws to a close with songs getting progressively shorter. Taveniere credits that to both a short attention span and the chronological arrangement of the tracks, which unspool roughly in the order of their creation. So the songs naturally shortened as the band approached the end of what was gradually becoming the album.
The working methods may seem lackadaisical, but the results are serious. Earl's songwriting is engrossing, and Taveniere's tinkering always lends a surreal air. At Echo Lake is weird and wonderful, a collision of catchy melodies and prickly details. It's how indie rock used to sound, before home-recorders had the easy means to polish their output, and there's no marketing strategy required.