Woods Became David Berman’s Band. Then They Picked Up the Pieces.

Jeremy Earl had been a father for two weeks when one of his favorite songwriters — David Berman, of the Silver Jews — emailed him with a plea: Help me make my first record in a decade.

Since 2005, Earl’s wistful falsetto has anchored Woods, the twinkling psychedelic-rock band that will release its most magnetic record yet, “Strange to Explain,” on Friday. He has also helmed Woodsist, a tiny but vital label that has served as a clearinghouse for early records by Kurt Vile, Kevin Morby and Real Estate. At their space in Brooklyn known as Rear House, Earl and the rest of Woods once ran the imprint, a studio, a practice area and a crowded crash pad for a stream of touring bands. It was, as Morby remembered, all “empty beer cans and cigarette butts, dudes in their 20s making nonstop music.”

But in early May 2018, when Berman wrote, Earl was taking a break to focus on his newborn daughter, Sierra, and the 11-acre spread he and his wife, Nicole, were turning into their home in New York’s leafy Hudson Valley. “I was in no rush to do anything,” Earl said in a phone interview from the barn that doubles as his home studio and Woodsist’s headquarters. “It was a welcome breather after years of putting the band above everything.”

Still, Earl’s bandmate Jarvis Taveniere told him to write Berman back. Taveniere had been a Silver Jews zealot since he was 15, and he had pined for Berman to return from his self-imposed hiatus. Since meeting at Purchase College two decades earlier, Earl and Taveniere had been best friends and perennial bandmates. In Woods, Earl emerged as the songwriter with the bittersweet bleat, while Taveniere was the band’s intuitive instrumentalist and in-demand producer, even relocating to Los Angeles in 2018 to help others make records. That’s the tandem Berman wanted.

Berman began dispatching reams of lyrics and, later, self-made demos. Earl and Taveniere had been admitted to a secret world, a private warren in which one of indie rock’s most compelling lyricists had holed up to pen some of his saddest and sharpest work, his wit studding pieces about despair like diamonds. A month later, they were in Chicago, rehearsing with Berman by day and sharing a mattress in a tiny apartment in the basement of his label, Drag City, by night. Berman called them his “jangle merchants.” By year’s end, Berman’s first album in a decade, released last summer as Purple Mountains, was ready.

“David would say, ‘If this sounds like my songs with Woods as my backing band, that’s not a bad thing,’” Taveniere said in a call from Los Angeles. “It seems like a dream. Did David Berman really come out of retirement and contact us?”

What had felt like a fantasy, though, morphed into a nightmare. To stay close to his family, Earl opted to sit out tours with Purple Mountains. Instead, Taveniere would play bass and serve as “music director” for a band he built. In August 2019, they convened in a Brooklyn apartment to rehearse. Berman made jokes and sang perfectly, Taveniere remembered — he now covets his iPhone recordings of those enthusiastic practices.

Berman mentioned his long battles with depression, warning the band it might flare up on tour. “But he talked about it in a hopeful way,” Taveniere said. Four days into rehearsals, on a sunny New York morning, Taveniere was shopping for a suit to wear onstage when he was summoned to the apartment. He thought Berman was still sleeping but was horrified to discover the truth: Berman had killed himself at the age of 52.

Earl was on vacation at a Virginia lake when Taveniere called him that afternoon. They sat silently on the phone, too dazed to speak much. Days later, they rendezvoused at Earl’s home. They swam, then tried to get lost in finishing “Strange to Explain,” the album they’d cut during two weeklong sessions at an ocean-side California redoubt with their bandmates, the drummer Aaron Neveu, the multi-instrumentalist John Andrews and the keyboardist Kyle Forester.

Nothing on “Strange to Explain” addresses Berman’s death — it was written and recorded before Purple Mountains began their rehearsals. But Earl and Taveniere had spent months living with the words of Berman, who rhymed, “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion/Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in” during the first verse of Purple Mountains’ debut.

Those feelings — of being trapped by your own fear, of looking for some way out — seeped into Earl’s work. At home, after he put Sierra to bed, he would slip into his barn to contemplate his dreams, his temporary sanctuaries from the day’s worries.

“Depression is something that’s always been there, but dealing with it is new,” said Earl, who, at 41, has realized it’s time to find a therapist. “I need a better way to cope.”

Despite the anxiety that inspired these songs, there’s a sense of muted joy to “Strange to Explain,” thanks partly to the warm keyboards that frame it. The title track, a harmony-rich reflection on depression-induced déjà vu, floats on a gentle Laurel Canyon breeze. “Fell So Hard” pulses like post-punk but flickers like a lullaby. Earl’s voice strains as he offers motivation to a friend considering giving up: “It’s the lack of start that will get you down.”

More than a decade ago, Woods started in secret, with Earl recording his plaintive songs alone in his tiny Brooklyn bedroom. During the last six years, though, Taveniere graduated from four-tracks and sessions in spare rooms to professional studios, where he’s made more nuanced records. His expanding skill set parallels Earl’s own growth as a reflective writer, increasingly able to articulate his unease. “Strange to Explain” is a testament to the kind of patient refinement of once-inchoate ideas that a long partnership allows. These 11 songs pair the eccentricity of Woods’ early records with the conviction that it’s all worth saying and playing a little louder.

Near the album’s center, Woods rumble through “Can’t Get Out,” a wildly irrepressible tune about being paralyzed by self-doubt that’s driven by a distorted bass, keening chorus and warped guitar that bring to mind the Flaming Lips going up to Woodstock with Canned Heat. After the final refrain, Woods stagger into a dissonant jumble, noise and percussion colliding like pinballs. That’s Sierra, now 2, playing a maraca for her father’s band.

“There’s an energy that kids put off that’s like a drug. Looking into my daughter’s eyes, all of my problems usually melt away,” Earl said, pausing. “She’s an escape.”

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