Even at 11 tracks, the new self-titled album from former Ashevillean Woody Pines is just over 30 minutes long. It’s an album that wastes little time. Each note feels precise, the melodies are wrench-tight and the lyrics are delivered with an efficient snap. That said, each of those 11 tracks is packed with humor, history and the kind of nimble rhythms that have your feet tapping before your brain even starts to think about dancing.
Lead track “Anything for Love” dips and swings. It’s unapologetically retro, from the thick standup bass to the cozy background vocals. “I’d pinch Mike Tyson’s cheek / be dodging punched for a week,” Pines sings.
“Little Stella Blue” trades swagger for swoon. The heartfelt foxtrot, dusky and shot through with shimmery steel guitar is not without a wink or two (“Some people lose their wallet / some people lose their keys / I can’t imagine living / without you next to me”) but the overarching mood is sweet without ever becoming cloying. Here, each instrument is tender and tasteful, the emotional poignancy wrung from every note. It’s a surprise, and a standout track.
The next song, “Make it to the Woods,” starts at an easy amble, but this is a completely different mood. Pines has plenty of swagger, and even the most innocuous lyrics — “I keep my skillet good and greasy all the time” — drip innuendo. The guitar strums provide an accompanying rhythm to the bare-bones percussion, and harmonica accents slither through the melody. A gospellike break perfectly rounds out the track.
“This Train Rolls By” and “New Nashville Boogie” are the album’s shortest offerings. The first, a lanky swing tune is mostly in service to a particularly resonant and eerie guitar tone. The lyrics, though interesting, are almost just a vehicle for that one instrument. The latter, a faster swing, paired a similar guitar tone — its metallic whine somehow brighter when accompanied by a nimble boogie-woogie piano part.
While still solidly retro, “Walking Stick,” with its castanetlike hiss and sinister violin, abandons the roadhouse in favor of the tango arena. Tango is the flavor, though, not the dance step. Like all of Pines’ songs, this one could score the moves of professional dancers — but it’s fun to just move around to, no lessons needed.
“Over the Water,” a slower two-step, provides the perfect opportunity for an easy turn around the dance floor. Harmonica and acoustic strums set up a breezy premise, but some background orchestration later in the song adds to the romantic mood. “When you’re dreaming in your bed / I hope we’re dancing in your head,” Pines sings; the song’s simplicity belies its considerable emotion punch.
There’s a pleasantly gritty guitar snarl at the beginning of “Delta Bound.” And while Pines doesn’t possess a particularly menacing voice, he pulls off a kind of croon-with-edge. The unhurried pace of the song evokes the sweaty pulse of New Orleans — a tempo that quickly gives way to the jittery stamp of “Black Rat Swing.”
That song, bright and upbeat, tucks a switchblade behind a grin. And it’s in that kind of moment that Pines and his band are at their best. Sure, these are fun songs. Yes, you can shuffle around the room to them without so much as a second thought. And yes, there’s a textbook-worth of Americana history folded into each carefully constructed composition. But for all the smarts and musicianship, there is also a slight of hand, a barely perceived darkness that adds depth and thrill.
The album ends with “Worth the Game,” a subdued folk offering with overarching themes of life’s trajectory and universality. “From Portugal to Oklahoma / the world is one full deck of cards,” Pines sings. It’s his “This Land is Your Land” and works both as a summation of the record and as a tribute to the accumen of a touring musician.