Pastoral whimsy, psychedelic studio trickery and the sound of summer in western North Carolina from Ethan Woods.
Release Date: 29th April 2022
Label: Whatever’s Clever Records
Formats: Cassette / Digital
Brooklyn alumni Ethan Woods is, perhaps, best known to the world as a respected composer for modern dance – his scores have been widely performed by dancers, groups and collectives across the USA and Europe. Or – his name may be familiar to you as the co-founder of bands such as Rokenri and Hyperion Drive, or even as a member of numerous Brooklyn Bands such as TWVE or Ocean Music. But he’s also a solo performer with a growing reputation; his latest offering, Burnout, is his second full-length solo album and follows his 2018 collection, Mossing Around And Other Songs. And it’s like nothing else that you’ll hear this year.
Whilst the ideas for Burnout were gestated in Brooklyn between 2014 and 2017, the project really started to take shape after Ethan relocated himself to Asheville, North Carolina in 2018. And whilst Ethan’s music gives hints of influences that include Sufjan Stevens, perhaps a touch of Robert Wyatt, flashes of Nick Drake and, at least to my ears, a dose of early Tyrannosaurus Rex, the sounds captured on Burnout are genuinely unique. Recorded outdoors during the course of a late summer’s day in western North Carolina, with a backdrop of pastoral sounds that include the dawn chorus, cricket chirps, a crowing rooster and a heavy rainstorm, the field recordings were then mixed with studio effects and overdubbed with additional instrumentation to achieve a sound that is alternately close to nature, drenched in electronic sophistication, packed with pastoral whimsy and strangely unsettling. And you can’t see the join.
Mrs Moo, the album’s first single gets things underway. Named after a character from Ethan’s childhood that his father made up, it’s a song that combines elements of poetry, jazz, psychedelia and Appalachian folk together under the one, single umbrella. Strummed guitar, lo-fi percussion and horn sounds that are actually electronic transformations of Ethan’s voice are all there in a song that is both weirdly unpredictable and unexpectedly alluring. Ethan tells the story of the song’s fascinating video (which you can watch via the link below…): “I made this video as a 1-1 translation of the song’s lyrics. All the footage was shot by me and my partner on our phones between 2017 and 2019 whilst we were living in Asheville. The video features a world where slapstick coincidences are at odds with cosmic synchronicities. Found footage of me and my friends are juxtaposed against verses about a childhood lost, imposter syndrome and missing the cows of New England – all to surprisingly comic effect. The whole thing climaxes with a hurried sequence of misfires set to the last verse, in which I repeat the line ‘Why do I try?’ There’s footage from my day job as an arborist, classes taught by friends at the now defunct Cabbage School of Western North Carolina, a dance party at my best friend’s wedding, the legendary KFC chicken of Marietta, GA – culminating with a shot of a person literally flying!” And the Carolina dawn chorus persists throughout.
That same dawn chorus is audible as Ethan moves on to Utopia Limited (Cuddly Tie-In), a delightful, dreamy and peacefully psychedelic song with a rich sound that is given extra depth by Trevor Wilson’s frame drum. The day moves on as a crowing rooster provides the accompaniment to Ethan’s gently plucked guitar for Lauren’s Song, a dedication to Ethan’s partner, Lauren Gerndt who’s physical and spiritual presence permeates each song on the album. The song grows from simple beginnings into a full band performance as pattering percussion joins the excitable cockerel to add to the summery outdoor feel and a rich bassline provides a level of sophistication that emerges here for the first time.
A relentless rhythm and unearthly howls – probably electronically processed backing vocals – provide the drive for Working Zero, an enjoyable slice of psychedelia, before the dense chirps of a hot summer evening herald the intro to Porch Talk (Sandy Mush Version), the album’s centrepiece and, by some distance, its longest track. To a building background of simply plucked guitar, piano and an eerie electronic drone, Ethan asks questions like “Why am I alive?” and “How did I survive” in a song that is apocalyptic and funereal – a sense to which Trevor Wilson’s sporadic crashing drum parts add great emphasis. A dreamy and engaging march into oblivion.
The influence – or, at least, the spirit – of Nick Drake is, perhaps, most apparent in Chirin’s Bell, a song that ebbs and flows between peaceful contemplation and high drama as passages of soft guitar and intimate vocals yield to electronic mayhem and anarchic drums. In contrast, Aster’s Song – dedicated to Ethan’s late “ill-tempered” dog is, possibly, the album’s most sentimental track. Ethan delivers his most tuneful, melodic vocal on a song that becomes almost poppy in the sections where the full band kick in.
This unique, fascinating album is brought to its close with Say Goodnight My Light. A heavy summer rainstorm had evidently started whilst Ethan was performing Aster’s Song, and that storm persisted throughout this closing number, a joyous, loose stomp involving the whole ensemble, with lyrics that (apparently) contemplate “giving in and giving up.” Not a bad piece of advice in that weather!
Burnout is, indeed a singular album. As the press release eloquently summarises: The combination of whimsical lyrics, field recordings from the mountains and overdubbed psychedelia inspires a delightful curiosity about the environment surrounding these songs. The incidental field recording quality of the performances mixed with Ethan’s studio wizardry leaves the listener wondering what happened live, what happened after the fact, and what does it mean for a record to even be live? In fact, much of the album finds Ethan himself asking similar questions. To some relief, he occasionally offers answers too. Now – I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the sentiments expressed in that summary apply to every artist and every recording, but, in the case of Ethan Woods and Burnout, they certainly do.
Watch that fascinating Official video to Mrs Moo, the album’s first single, here: