Backtrack

Backtrack: Woods At Rear House

Jobs were passed down generationally between strangers. One guy became an editor at a magazine, but used to be a music buyer at Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks. My friend got the job and started a shoegaze band with a tall guy named Brad that had a huge beard and a couple large cats. Brad moved away and then two different guys joined and the band got way darker. It felt like every musician in New York was in Black Dice at some point. Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio produced a record for Telepathe, a band that used to be a different band. I got an internship at The FADER through a kid I sort of knew that went to Columbia who had one before me. He really liked Ryan Adams. I liked Ryan Adams less, which worried me for some reason.

Record stores were already going then, but they weren’t completely gone. Their ruins were still crumbling. Grasping. The cheap used CD places that all looked the same with way too many Craig Mack singles still lurked in forgotten storefronts. Kim’s, with its creaky stairs and methadone musk held secrets too deep for me to understand. You could find out about Throbbing Gristle or the prog band Vangelis was in before he was Vangelis. Mixtapes in thin jewel cases came pre-cracked. White label 12-inches shared space with German black-and-white porn videos on abrasive loop. It felt seedy and was legitimately unwelcoming, but kind of intangibly cool too. Like it was just beyond my reach at all times.

I’d just missed freak folk, or freak folk had missed me. I had the requisite Devendra Banhart albums that Michael Gira put out on his Young God label. The Akron Family splits, the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation. The blueprints for the scene were in my hands, but the artists had moved on. Some to California, some to who knows where. Banhart dated Natalie Portman for awhile. One time over musty potato burritos at Burritoville, a friend told me that he saw him walking around New York with no shoes on. It seemed believable. It seemed gross. He did not give a fuck, and that seemed cool (but still so gross). I grew my beard way out to hide the leftover baby fat. College fat. Whatever. It did not look great. I got really into incense, which my roommate hated. I spent a lot of time listening to After The Gold Rush because it was the only Neil Young album I had on vinyl.

What was left? A younger, darker crew. Castanets had druggy noise experiments. Phosphorescent had boozy melancholy. My memories of New York transitioned from skyscraper tourism to old warehouses. Shows in tortilla factories. Busted docks that splintered 20 feet out into the water. A bunch of dirty, lost kids watching the sunset, perched on rocks illegally in a construction zone as winter was starting to set in. It all felt pretty cool. Sincere. Maybe a little too into itself. It felt like a scene that wasn’t quite ready to let go but probably should have. On good days, I felt like it was everything. Other times, I felt cheated.

Woods’ At Rear House was a mystery. One of those records I came across one day when I was lost deep down a MySpace top friends rabbit hole (cherish the memories). It’s an album of low-key folk. There’s an entire song dedicated to tape collage, rickety drumming and cat noises. The whole record (except that song) felt like it was about ghosts of friendships, relationships. Ghosts of trust. Losing faith in people when you want so bad not to. It’s a heavy listen, made heavier by the twists the band’s career would later take.

Woods have since become shorthand for a movement they’re only tangentially related to in sound. Frontman Jeremy Earl started the Woodsist label just as Woods the band morphed from tiny acoustic moments to a full fledged psychedelic project that somehow managed to hold on to great pop instincts. The Woodsist label, meanwhile, was home to artists that would later go on to find larger audiences: Wavves, Vivian Girls, Kurt Vile. If you were living in a certain place, at a certain age, in right around 2009, just the name Woodsist, along with the logo, drawn by Earl — a stitched hand, palm open — would conjure up warehouse shows, bands bursting with enthusiasm that hid hooks under grit and noise. Woods, for their part, never really made music that sounded like this. After At Rear House, they’d flesh out, become a sort of modern day Grateful Dead. Within their world they were universally loved, outside of it they were universally underrated, but reliable. Woods have always been a great band, but they keep getting better — sculpting instrumental sprawl into nuggets of whirlwind psychedelia.

The thing that got me about At Rear House was how plain it was. I didn’t understand it. It wasn’t self consciously weird like all the freak folk stuff, but it also didn’t have the extreme nihilism that was grafted to the fibers of every Castanets song. It was dark, but hopeful, too. Earl’s voice is a soft falsetto that sounds worn down by betrayal, but it’s still forceful and sure. The opening track features the simple directive: “don’t pass on me and I won’t pass on you.” It’s obvious. Treat people how you want to be treated, don’t be shitty, etc. Earl isn’t writing about emotional endings, he’s just writing about how relationships mutate.

It’d be amazing to say that there’s a concrete lesson here: something about how the interpersonal situations we foster are never good or bad or right or wrong, how they just fumble toward a nonexistent conclusion, but it’s not that simple, and Earl clearly understands that. People fade out of your life and then they come back in. Or they never go. Or they go forever. Life is super weird. It’s stressful to try to create any kind of pattern.

Kim’s moved further into the Lower East Side. Does Burritoville even still exist? Those weird CD stores are almost completely gone. They’re never going to come back in the same form, but these sentiments will. Life will never not be confusing. Hopefully, like clockwork, Woods will be there to provide the stability we all sometimes need.

Tags: Woods