“That’s the trouble with works of art, they don’t care when you fall apart.”
As I await a replacement stylus to arrive in the mail, it seems like a good time for not being too precious about vinyl. The Woolen Men are one of my favorite current bands—insanely prolific but half their releases are cassette-only (sometimes with a digital counterpart). Of the available records their second album Temporary Monument (2015) and the Quick Trips 7” (2014) are in heaviest rotation by me, but the Options EP is their finest moment, and I can only hope it’ll appear on record soon—perhaps on a compilation LP like Dog Years, which demonstrates their nascent instincts of what a song should be. Seven or eight years later they’ve sharpened their workmanlike utility into masterful pop songcraft. For now I’ll have to settle for these AIFF files, and by now they’ve probably got a dozen new songs as good as these.
With a Hüsker-ish riff and one of the most arresting opening lines in “I watched it die / in front of me” they are off with “Curtain” and by the middle are literally tearing it up. They’ve definitely honed their chops since Dog Years, and their secret seems to be bringing just enough proficiency to what the songs require, though bassist Lawton Browning is a standout on the title track. With its jagged, interlocking parts “Options” conveys the dizzying anxiety of being faced with too much Freedom Of Choice, and an effective small dose of vocal echo is the closest these guys have come to extravagant production. “Scarlet” halves the tempo, but not the intensity. Their minimalism extends to lyrics like the pleasantly banal “She’s got nothing better to do than hang around with you” before shifting the narrator’s address with the compellingly oblique “Now I’ve turned the page, left you scarlet where you are.” Pretty deep stuff from three guys who look like they’d be totally cool with helping you move your couch.
I’ll imagine flipping a side here, with the epic—at one minute longer than anything else—”Paladin / Return.” With two writer-singers in the band, this song is clearly stitched together from ideas by the two of them, but is wholly convincing. They’re increasingly political, with guitarist Alex Geddes particularly preoccupied with class issues, he rages here about the “closed system” of nepotism. When drummer Raf Spielman takes it over, he’s less specific in his expression of frustration—“Lost the thread of it… why does it seem so impossible?” It’s actually more than a two-part song, and by the third section they conjure the Buzzcocks for a hair-raising stretch. There’s no reason why it should work as well as it does, and I’m sure they were just as surprised when they had all the pieces in place. In my book, top five of all their songs. They’re limited as singers—though Raf kills me on the gentle “Walking Out” that ends the second album—and there’s something charming about Alex’s voice cracking on “Who’s that waiting behind the door?”—the opening line of “Freedom Day” here. There’s a spoken bit in the middle that I can’t quite catch but am roused when he marvels about “A Polaroid! A Mosaic!” I suppose it’s not too hard to sustain energy on a 16-minute EP, but I have to admit at first, with it’s somewhat pedestrian start, it didn’t sound like the closer “Minor White” was gonna be much. I don’t know what it means, but Alex’s recitation of the title is oddly affecting, and with a tasty but sparse guitar solo, a perfect example of how they get the job done with modest tools.
I rarely suffer the sickness of a collector who simply must have a record (Raf must’ve had it bad when he included a note in a Woolen Men single seeking a particular Fall record) but in this case, the coveted object doesn’t even exist.