Duncan Wood ’17 was a very busy undergraduate. Between working as a TA at the physics department, performing in the orchestra at various stage productions, running a music show at KZSU (as DJ Woodie Wood), and being an active part of Stanford’s Super Smash Bros. Melee community, it’s safe to assume that he barely had any free time at all. Perhaps that’s why it took him until now to get around to releasing his debut EP, “where am i,” a lovingly-rendered set of acoustic pop tunes. After months of tinkering with these songs, Wood finally feels confident enough to put them out for the world to hear, and it’s clear that it was worth the wait.
The EP gets off to a charmingly understated start on “big sur.” (“This is a sadboi lowercase record,” Wood noted in the EP’s announcement.) The first sounds you hear are strummed acoustic guitar and the crash of waves against the beach. The additions of mandolin, trumpet and flute are subtle and tasteful, never cluttering up the song or overpowering Wood’s voice as he invites his girl to “calm your restless mind / Leave the world behind.” The next full song that follows, “in your flame,” is every bit as good; it’s a groovy ditty in which the simple act of cooking scrambled eggs brings back memories of a former (and hopefully future) lover.
It helps that he’s got multi-instrumentalist and producer Zachary Ostroff ’16 in the studio. Ostroff, who has played with violinist Joshua Bell and jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding in the past, contributes bass and drums to the record. Crisp and melodic, Ostroff’s rhythm section is almost as integral to the EP as Wood himself, appearing on all four of the EP’s full songs. Ostroff’s colorful splashes of cymbal on “big sur” and “mt. hamilton” give the songs a fuller, jazzier feel; the songs would sound feel thin and anemic without them.
A student of classic rock and pop, Wood knows how to write hooky tunes that burrow into your mind after a few listens. His affinity for great, lovelorn pop — Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran — shows in his lyrics, which avoid the mawkish drivel and banal moon-June-spoon rhymes of lesser pop artists. (A lyric like “it takes a couple months waking up in a cold bed, deep inside your own head” is both smartly written and evocative.) On top of that, Wood handled the engineering, mixing and mastering of the EP himself, while collaborating with Ostroff on the production. It’s clear that they fussed over it. For the most part, the tunes on “where am i” sound pretty effortless, betraying the unmistakable effort that went into crafting them.
Which is why it can be a tad frustrating on the rare occasion that Wood and Ostroff’s choices don’t work out. The laid-back spell of “santa cruz” is somewhat broken by the intrusion of a prickly, overdriven guitar solo; one gets the sense that the song would work better as a stripped-down ballad or a plugged-in rocker than a fusion of both. The inclusion of studio banter and spoken word at the end of “santa cruz” and “mt. hamilton,” perhaps meant to make the song a more immersive listen, has the opposite effect, pulling the listener out of the sonic illusion. (A similar trick is put to much better use on the two parts of the titular interlude, which are more or less sound collages featuring voice messages from Wood’s friends. On those tracks, it captures the wistful, longing feeling of looking at an old photo of friends.) But it’s hard to stay sore when Wood’s earnest singing or Ostroff’s hearty, melodic bass come into clarity. As with the best-crafted pop, let these moments wash over you and they’ll win you over.
Wood has omnivorous musical tastes, even if they don’t always scan. While his biography on Bandcamp namedrops James Taylor, Jason Mraz, Queen, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles as influences, only the first two are immediately apparent. It’s unfair to hold this against Wood now, but it will be interesting to see if he tries his hand at vocal theatrics, volcanic guitar solos or dreamy psychedelia on his next outing, or if he decides to strip things back further in favor of a purely acoustic sound. Hopefully he’ll have a better sense of where he wants to be by then, but for now, the place he’s in is a promising one.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.