The excellent Brooklyn band Woods has recently backed away from its image as (to quote an unfortunately-worded Noisey headline) “gross, smelly hippies.” Not that they ever had anything to apologize for. Sure, earlier efforts like 2011′s At Echo Lake and ’12′s Sun and Shade were a little jammy and espoused a quaint nature-boy ethos. But they were also focused, concise and consistently-melodic folk-pop records, more akin to mid-’80s R.E.M. than the Grateful Dead. With 2012′s Bend Beyond and the new With Light and With Love, Woods have become even more purposeful about their polished pop-rock, tamping down the spontaneity and free-floating weirdness of the early LPs, mostly (though not always) for the better.
Where Woods once seemed to record songs shortly after they wrote them — most likely over a bowl, or several — With Light suggests that Jeremy Earl and his bandmates now favor craftsmanship over serendipity. With Light is settled and straightforward, no more so than on the gently chugging “Moving to the Left,” which could pass for a Decemberists song. The record’s best moments boast a palpable confidence and sense of perspective; the gorgeous steel guitar on “Shepherd” recalls those early-’70s CSN records about embracing the comforts of adulthood after the tumult of youth.
Uptight indie fans will still sniff out traces of hippiedom here and there. On “Full Moon” Earl sings, “How am I supposed to let go of the full moon in your eyes?” over some “Sister Golden Hair” guitar licks. But if there’s a criticism of the otherwise dependably strong With Light, it’s that it could stand to be a little freakier. Excepting the noodling that extends the title track past the nine-minute mark, Woods contains its quirks to a fabulously wanky guitar solo here ( “Twin Steps”) or a trippy organ fill there (“Leaves Like Grass”). There’s no need for Woods to completely shear its eccentricities; a nicely coiffed ponytail will suffice.