"There are very few writers who can make you laugh and break your heart in the same song"
“Sincere, literate folk-rock that doesn't hold back on hooks .."
"A knack for taking huge, universal feelings and distilling them into simple, poignant moments"
"AN EMOTIONAL WALLOP"
Donovan Woods could have taken the easy road on his new album, the shortcut that would have burnished an already acclaimed reputation as a singer and songwriter.
We’ve heard the songs on The Other Way before, back when they were collected on Both Ways, the artist’s 2018 release that scored him his first Juno Award, for contemporary roots album, earlier this year after a handful of previous nominations (including two nods for songwriter of the year).
Woods was curious: What if he re-recorded Both Ways, as “an acoustic reimagining,” and distilled its 12 songs to their bare essence? Where others might simply drill down to voice and guitar, or maybe even just streamline the original productions, Woods went widescreen with his vision.
“We started from scratch,” he says, from the instrumentation to his vocals to a fresh understanding of the pathos that underpin the stories he told with such abandon on Both Ways. “There are no recording elements carried over from that album. It’s all brand-new.”
Set for release on May 3 on Meant Well, Woods’ own label, The Other Way brims with inspired interpretations that are intimate yet startling in their urgency. Granted, Woods has never exactly cloaked his lyrics in bells and whistles. Beginning with his 2009 debut, The Hold Up, there’s a reason why the Canadian artist has become such a sought-after songwriter whose work has been recorded by Tim McGraw (“Portland, Maine”) and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley (“Leaving Nashville”), with Spotify streams approaching nearly 90 million. You’ve always been able to hear and connect with Woods’ words.
But an odd sensation washes over you when the varnish is wiped off of Woods’ songs. Somehow the lyrics burrow with even greater resonance and then linger like little smoke rings. The production on The Other Way is so vaporous at times that you might think these are the demo versions of the songs. You’d be wrong.
For a producer, Woods enlisted ace guitarist Todd Lombardo, who produced Woods’ “Portland, Maine” in 2015 and wrote and played most of the guitar parts on Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning Golden Hour in addition to touring with Taylor Swift and Niall Horan.
“When Donovan asked me, my first impression was, ‘Oh, shit, how do I do this?,’” Lombardo says, only half-jokingly. “How do I make this a better record or at least a different record? Because it's very much acoustic and it's very much realized and the productions are all really wonderful and wonderfully thought out.”
Woods gave Lombardo artistic license not only to change the chords and song structures but to overhaul the arrangements in ways far beyond Woods’ grasp. (“I’ll be the first to admit that,” Woods says.) They didn’t pare down much because there wasn’t much clutter to begin with.
Instead, they worked within the parameters of acoustic instruments. In place of thick bass lines and the crack of thunderous drums, we hear tenor guitar and mandolin and Joshua Van Tassel’s elegant percussion on a few songs. (And on “I Don’t Belong To You,” lean in to catch Lombardo thumping a leather-bound book, the same one he deployed back on “Portland, Maine”).
With Lombardo’s guitar work as the centerpiece, throughout The Other Way the harmonic shifts are subtle but luminous and amplify the nuances of Woods’ songwriting.
“I think it draws out the pain and the darkness of these songs,” Lombardo says. “Because the record is about loss and failure and feeling like you fucked it up. And now there’s no mistaking that with this record. You hear every single word – and feel it, too.”
“Easy Street,” whose original version revved up with swagger straight out of the Springsteen and Mellencamp playbooks, is softer yet still a fist-pumping anthem you’re prone to sing in your car. “Read About Memory” sounds exactly like that – a fading recollection of love whose details you could swap out for your own.
Perhaps even more gutting is the stark rendering of “Our Friend Bobby,” Woods’ rumination on a loved one’s self-destruction and demise. Every line, every devastating detail is crisp and cuts right to the bone. “That one feels a lot sadder to me,” even Woods admits.
Lombardo’s treatment for “Great Escape” turns the song inside out, making the original minor chords major and thereby revealing a deeper well of desperation. “I don’t think I realized how dire that song was until I heard that new arrangement,” Woods says.
And Tenille Townes, a rising country star signed to Columbia Nashville, joins Woods on the tender duet “I Ain’t Ever Loved No One,” their voices entwining like a flip side to Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
Coming on the heels of “Go to Her,” Woods’ first song of 2019, The Other Way is so revelatory that it makes you wonder why he didn’t try this approach sooner.
“It’s always been an interesting idea to me, especially when you’re an artist like me who inherently disappoints some people anytime your sound gets bigger,” Woods says. “So many people just love to hear an acoustic guitar and someone singing.”
“But a really good song is a good song in any arrangement,” he adds. “It’s like a beautiful hardwood floor. You can put any furniture in there, and it’s going to look good. So with this record, I wanted to find out if these songs could hold up to that idea.”
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