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Woodbine - s/t

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Artist: Woodbine

Album: s/t

Label: Domino

Review date: Feb. 3, 2003

A Pleasant Tweaking of Reality

We are connected to the world through sound. It washes around us, constantly, a rush of people, conversation, street sounds, and music. Depending on our inclination, some of these sounds are picked out and examined, listened to. We give some of these sounds meaning, let others fade away without further thought, but the process is so continuous and unrelenting that we rarely take a step back and consider the hugely important role that sound plays in our lives. Only occasionally, for example, when a song on a jukebox brings us back with force to a long-buried memory, do we begin to gain awareness of sound's defining quality in our lives. It's the Proustian madelaine of our age, capable of transportation and evocation in ways that other art forms usually only hint at.

There's a good deal of music devoted to this idea, in one way or another, with special concern given to drug-induced, altered states of perception. Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to is by now a well-worn conceit, but there is another, related state which is under-represented in music: the morning after. After a night of heavy drinking or substance abuse, there is a certain strangeness to one's perceptions, a pleasant tweaking of reality, that is sometimes more enjoyable than the actual drug experience. Sounds and images float through one's consciousness but fail to fully gel, making the world feel a bit more magical and odd than it otherwise would.

Mining this fairly unexplored territory is the Birmingham-based trio Woodbine, who find strange beauty in this chemically-induced dislocation. Their sound is composed of readily familiar elements: homemade percussion, occasional drum machines, ethereal vocals, and loosely strummed acoustic guitars. Strong melodies weave through the songs, but it's difficult to describe them as pop, since they seem to float by rather than demand your attention. Sounds drift in and out of the mix; weird samples of car horns cause you to wonder if what you're hearing is on the record or coming from the street.

It's easy to namedrop related bands: the Pastels, Mazzy Star, and Portishead would be obvious, but Woodbine have carved out a unique sound that easily thwarts such comparisons. And for all the airy strangeness of the record, there are some wonderful, nearly classic songs, such as "I Hope That You Get What You Want", which deconstructs a failed romance as gloriously fuzzed-out guitar wraps around Susan Dillane's gorgeous singing. "Complete Control" is melancholic near-folk, while "Tricity Tiara" noses through the ashes of a breakup, creating a beautiful but slightly menacing atmosphere with just an insistent tambourine and some whirling electronics. Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux (credited as Adam and Eve) were handed the master tapes and given free reign to remix the album, without ever meeting the band. An obvious choice on one level, as Royal Trux are one of the most notoriously drugged-up bands in history, but a risky one, as the Trux often lapse into an unlistenable sloppiness in their own music. Thankfully, however, this particular meeting of minds has resulted in a well-judged, often sublime sonic palette for the songs to emerge from. Although Woodbine are not in service to their atmospherics, the production and sonic experimentation throughout the record elevates the songs and takes them to much more interesting places than a more stripped-down approach would have. It's in small moments, when a beautifully sung chorus fades away and is replaced by a droning guitar and children laughing, that the album reaches its peaks, recalling the jumbled misfirings of an altered consciousness and the particular beauty of the resulting confusion.

Detractors might find the album a bit loose and unfocused, but this, it seems, is part of the point. In order to embody a certain state of mind, you can't simply imitate, you have to step into its shoes. And on an album with lyrics like "Round and round/smoking brown/wearing down/I'm wearing purple", one has to expect a certain amount of formless meandering. And once you slow yourself down to the record's rhythm, the meandering begins to make sense, and you're drawn into the music's personal, peculiar logic. That it manages to draw you into this emotional and physical state while maintaining a healthy pop sensibility is a minor miracle, and it's these twin drives that hold the album together. There was a three-year gap between Woodbine's signing to Domino and the release of their first single, apparently the result of some vigorous drug use. And while it's good to know that they're keeping it real, one hopes that they can balance the drug-taking and the music-making in healthy doses. For their unusual, blurred vision of reality is one we could use a little more of. And, although it probably goes without saying, they make excellent music to get stoned to.

By Jason Dungan

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