What 'Wood' have been great

Listening to indie-folk band The Hundred Acre Woods’ 2011 self-titled EP immediately before diving into their latest release may have been a bad idea. Set against the former, the three-song album “Cold in the Morning” struck me as unimpressive. Where their 2011 work was unique in its complete transformation of traditional 1970s folk music, their latest caves into rock and alternative cliches, more typical to groups like The Fray. What was left lacked the special emotion and joy their sound used to carry.

The album’s first track, “Whiskey Thieves,” has folksy undertones with prominent acoustic guitar and banjo, putting a dramatic modern twist on the folk-choral singing which opens the song. The inclusion of drums and horns makes this track upbeat and adds a degree of whimsy, but the increased diversity of instrumentation signals a loss of the intimacy the 2011 EP excelled at.

The monotonous vocals pushed to the front on “Thieves” are also off-putting, as vocalization was only periodically played up on the previous EP. Even though the track sets THAW slightly apart from other modern indie-folk bands, it’s definitely not enough to salvage my crushed hopes.

On the other hand, the second track, “City Lights,” starts out completely above-average. The folk sound is taken in a more cohesive direction, where muted drums allow heavier reliance on their characteristic use of the acoustic guitar. The lyrics are more a rebirth of the evocative yet simplistic imagery which made me love the 2011 EP, particularly where lead singer Winthrop Stevens wonders ,“If [he] ascend[s] above the trees / Will [he] become one with the leaves / We’re all just searching for some meaning / A light to guide when stars are fleeting.”

Less than a minute in, this intimacy is broken when the drums take the lead once again — but they do so in a way that enhances the irregularity of rhythm which made tracks like “Coyote Bones” (on their previous release) so intriguing. This, coupled with a reinterpretation of choral singing and layered string progressions, makes “City Lights” a great piece, reminiscent of former standout tracks and a startling contrast to the blandness of “Whiskey Thieves.”

The EP’s final track, “Loose Parts,” also hosted conflicting elements of the more welcome traditional sounds against ugly, modern alternative influences. Solo and choral vocals melt into lonely acoustic guitar, and the addition of a banjo develops an excitingly deeper, bouncier rhythm. A strumming electric guitar and the monotonous voice which takes the lead once more shows the influence of The Fray and The Killers, retracting the rawness of energy that folk influences brought to THAW’s sound in the past. The ending’s “feel-good” fade out fails to inspire, but also serves as a throwback to the minimalism of the 2011 EP with its own lack of finality.

This final track is pretty indicative of “Cold in the Morning” as an album: a tad boring, but melodic and pleasing to the ears all the same.

Published February 5, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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