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Artist: Woods / Amps for Christ

Album: Woods / Amps for Christ

Label: Shrimper

Review date: May. 16, 2012


Woods - "Wind was the Wine" (Woods / Amps for Christ)


In Amps for Christ, Henry Barnes may have, in some ways, anticipated Woods’ noise-inflected folk pop. Coming out of hardcore and metal in the mid-1990s, he explored ways to place churning distortion in harmony with delicate, multi-ethnic plucking, sounding more like latter day Woodsist outfits (Woods, but also MV +EE) than first wave lo-fi bands (Sentridoh, GBV etc.). This split CD shows how the two bands are closely aligned but distinct from one another, with slightly different approaches to the blend of buzz, drone and melody.

For the most part, Amps for Christ pushes further out onto the experimental continuum, undermining its prettiest moments with an abrasive undercurrent of noise. “When,” the album’s opening cut, is an entwinement of beauty and ugliness, its pristine guitar arpeggios coexisting with a beehive’s hum of irritation. A layer of Fairport Convention intersects with another of, say, Psychedelic Horseshit, each element existing in a more or less separate time and space, proceeding without reference to the other, but meeting up in unexpected places. The noise unsettles this cut’s limpid lyricism — you can hear the beauty of it, but cannot quite relax and luxuriate in it. “Native Chantz” is even more aggressive, its buzz and squawk and fuzz evoking very old video games.

Barnes seems to value texture over melody, working and reworking layers of electronic and organic sound in uneasy, atmospheric patterns. His best tune, then, is a borrowed one, the traditional “Lord Bateman,” once sung by Jean Ritchie on the Smithsonian folkways Appalachian collection. Here Barnes sings softly and prettily, accompanying the octave-jumping melody with the homespun framing of acoustic guitar. Even so, though, there’s a howl of entropy underneath, as waves of noise wander at will, flowing through the cracks in the song, bubbling beneath it and occasionally spilling over into the foreground. It’s a gentle tune, though vaguely menacing, like catching Sam Amidon and a hurricane warning between frequencies on a radio.

The Woods’ half of the album is, by contrast, more song structured and immediately accessible. Placid, pretty “Wind was the Wine” would fit very nicely on Echo Lake. “Brothers,” with its hand drums and wandering guitar solos, is loosely strung but welcoming, a bit of twilight folk rock sung in falsetto. Closer “September Saturn” stretches out its groove, turning a homely mesh of bass, shaken percussion and guitar into a Krautish drone. All three Woods entries contain noise and distortion, but refuse to be subsumed by it. Where Amps for Christ’s main trick is subverting melody with unexpected roughness, Woods keeps the fuzz in a supporting role.

The one collaborative track underlines the fact that Woods and Amps for Christ do have something in common. “From Oatmeal to Buttermilk” incorporates sitar, shaken percussion and other non-Western sounds into its graceful, twining groove, then upends its worldish symmetries with blaring, vibrating blasts of noise (it sounds like wet rubber grinding against itself). It’s a short track and certainly not the best on the album, more a statement of possibility than a fully realized piece of music.

This split CD contains three really good songs (“Lord Bateman,” “Wind Was the Wine” and “September Saturn” by my count), and it draws some thought-provoking connections between Barnes’s folk-world-noise explorations and Woods’ earthier, more tuneful aesthetic. However, it doesn’t seem to solidify that connection, at least not within the space of this recording. That is, both Woods and Amps for Christ seem to end up just about where they began, rather than moving closer together. It would have been nice to hear more collaborations and a deeper exploration of their similarities, but that withstanding, they’re within hailing distance of one another in a very interesting piece of territory.

By Jennifer Kelly

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