Even in the inchoate early days of Woods, the sweet coo of founder Jeremy Earl turned his most elliptical lines into ready hooks. But like the collectives Elephant 6 or Lambchop a decade earlier, the amorphous band around Earl treated songs like playhouses, spaces where they might try anything. Harmonies spilled out through a mess of tape hiss; guitar solos curled like question marks. This casual idiosyncrasy was charming, a timely counter to indie rock’s burgeoning professionalism. In the decade since, however, Woods co-founder Jarvis Taveniere has become an adroit producer, and Earl has built a homespun empire of like minds through Woodsist. The stakes now sound higher on Woods records, with textures and a tightness beyond their reach during their broke Brooklyn days.
That’s why, at least in part, Painted Shrines feel like a time machine. The debut from the duo of Earl and psychedelic Americana veteran Glenn Donaldson, Heaven and Holy recalls the casual thrills and relaxed esprit of those fetching early Woods albums. In 30 minutes, Painted Shrines sashay through a dozen modest but endearing tunes about love, hardship, hope, and the prelapsarian joy of sharing riffs with friends. Though this record has been in the works for at least three years, it is happily nonchalant, more concerned with a sense of warmth than perfection; that effortless allure makes Heaven and Holy addictive.
Donaldson spent his formative years flitting about Jewelled Antler, the boundless psychedelic collective he co-founded; his songs in the discursive duo Skygreen Leopards were some of the most winsome of what became billed as New Weird America. But in recent years, he’s made lush, considered power pop as The Reds, Pinks & Purples. He brings both mindsets to the seven songs Earl sings on Heaven and Holy, adding soft harmonies and sharp riffs while muddling the surface with distortion and labyrinthine guitar lines.
Indeed, the best tunes here find a comfortable spot on the line connecting the Byrds and the Go-Betweens, then burrow underground. Earl purrs on “Saturates the Eye,” an anthem for accepting a relationship’s inevitable hardships. The screeching guitars beneath the chorus, though, convince you he sings from experience. He and Donaldson warble together over a Mellotron during “Heaven and Holy,” a song about cosmic exasperation. Without the instrumental caterwaul that traces their voices, it would sound saccharine.
The other half of Heaven and Holy collects five miniature instrumentals, each clocking in around two minutes. Deliberately unfussy, each piece is an efficient expression of a single motif. Most every guitar line of “Soft Wasp” lingers long enough for the next one to catch up, so the hazy notes and hand-drum patter merge into a low, broad cloud. Named for Donaldson’s California studio, “The BZC” is a simple drum-and-guitar duo, Donaldson chasing an earworm through a basic beat. It’s like Chet Atkins, scoring a podcast on a budget rather than a vintage Hollywood blockbuster. And you can imagine Earl and Donaldson dancing around the room after tracking “Panoramic,” a lithe wonder. There are some extra layers here and overdubs there, but the prevailing sense is of being in the room alongside Painted Shrines, watching them indulge in mutual discovery.
Donaldson and Earl recorded these dozen little tunes during a week-long soiree in 2018. The sessions sat shelved. Woods began tracking their own refined Strange to Explain and backing David Berman for his tragic benediction as Purple Mountains; Donaldson began releasing his own solo power pop work. But the unexpected downtime of COVID-19 lockdowns afforded the pair a chance to finish these songs, passing files back and forth like pen pals renewing a relationship.
If there have been any silver linings to this last anxious year of canceled plans and premature deaths, that may be one. Due to financial exigency or mere idle time, many artists have picked up projects they may never have finished otherwise, from live albums offloaded for Bandcamp Fridays to side projects that had been sidelined. Even when these songs bend toward bittersweetness, Painted Shrines revel in this low-stakes atmosphere, where there’s no reason not to finish what you started. “It’s the fog that creeps on in in the early morning,” Earl sings during the opener’s surging hook. “The same fog that burns right off by the afternoon.” Given the circumstances, Heaven and Holy feels like a celebration of perseverance and friendship, or of delighting in the basics because that’s all you have on hand.
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.