by S. Victor Aaron
The lead singer and guitar player plays in an electric blues band in Atlanta. The bass player is in New York as one third of the premier acid jazz band of the last ten years. You might say that these guys form a musical odd couple. Truth is, The Wood Brothers is a natural combination, and sharing the same momma and daddy might have something to do with that.
Oliver ad Chris Wood grew up together in Colorado to parents who were not musicians but both brothers became that, anyway. Oliver went down to Georgia to seek his fame and fortune, while Chris went up to New York to do the same. As a member of that innovative jam-band trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, it’s safe to state that Chris found a bigger pot of gold at the end of his rainbow. He’s unquestionably a major talent at bass, particularly the stand-up kind. Yeah, we’ve talked about him here a time or two.
It’s not like Oliver lacks talent, though. His blues band King Johnson just doesn’t seek to set the world on fire like MMW does. There ain’t no shame in delivering honest-to-goodness plugged-in blues, though. In fact, that’s an honor in my book.
Oliver as a singer wouldn’t win many talent shows; his strained voice often crackles and sometimes he doesn’t quite hit the notes. But his tone is somewhere in the zip code of Van Morrison and the laid-back sincerity in his delivery brings to mind the strange allure of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Most of the time, that’s good enough. He’s a decent guitar player and his slide work (as in “Twisted”) is actually pretty darned good.
Released earlier this week, Loaded is the follow-up to their celebrated fraternal debut Ways Not To Lose from a couple of years ago. While their brand of countrified folk-blues as well as MMW keyboardist John Medeski as the producer are carried over, Loaded is somewhat more adorned than Ways Not To Lose. You’ll hear Medeski’s subdued organ occasionally to go along with the Brothers and on about half the cuts, Kenny Wolleson’s drums. There’s a small string arrangement here and there. It’s still plenty rustic enough, though, and that’s a welcome relief.
The other big distinction of Loaded is that the majority of these twelve numbers played on this record were co-written by the Brothers. With each living in different parts of the country and heavily involved with their respective bands, composing songs together must have required a big commitment from both.
It’s a commitment that has paid off well, though; while Ways got by on charm alone, the Wood and Wood songs on Loaded carry the day this time.
“Postcards From Hell” is memorable for it’s Jerry Jeff Walker-esque character sketch of a talented but struggling troubadour who’s got the ability to sing the blues so well because he’s “got a soul that I won’t sell and I don’t read postcards from Hell.”
“Pray Enough” is a funky gospel that preaches “if you’re going to be the fool then you better be tough.” “Loaded” is a slower, cowboy number about saying regrettable things after drinking too much. “Twisted” is almost like a companion to “Loaded,” in that the narrator is relating of the sorry state he’s in, but the song has a much stronger blues element.
Chris makes his debut lead vocal turn on his own composition “Don’t Look Back.” He’s not a terrible singer but before I checked the credits I thought the brothers brought in a female guest vocalist to sing the part. Perhaps that’s another way of saying that one song with a lead vocal is good, but anymore than one would have been too much.
I’m happy to report that his bass playing, all of it acoustic, is as solid as ever. Some listeners may notice that it’s a little further up front in the mix than what’s normal for simple folk-blues, but it’s not too intrusive. You won’t hear Chris play many solos or go hot-dogging it; he knows his role in this record and uses it to augment his brother, not upstage him.
There’s three covers toward the end of the album. “Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor” has a distinctive Big Easy beat that only one drummer can play: Chris’ other MMW cohort Billy Martin. Bob Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain” is a low-key rendering with only the Brothers performing it live in the studio.
The standout cover is of Jimi Hendrix’s sublime ballad “Angel.” The glistening guitar chords played at the start seems out of place with the rest of the album, but the song quickly settles into a relaxed reggae groove that’s a much better match for Oliver’s warble than if this tune was played straight. Singer-songwriter Amos Lee does a nice job handling the singing on the second verse.
Two brothers from opposite ends of the musical spectrum getting together to play music that’s a little different from what either is known for playing could get by one time as a novelty. Chris and Oliver Wood evidently don’t see themselves that way, though. Recording their second album in just over two years and revealing some real growth along the way shows that these guys mean business. A family-run business.
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