Review by Rich Messmer
Images courtesy of The Wood Brothers
Folk music is back, haven’t ya heard? Of course you have. After a decades-long stint in the margins of popular music, the genres of folk-rock and Americana has cycled their way back into the mainstream at a level perhaps greater than that of Bob Dylan’s sixties. For those who never left the program- this tidal wave of a resurgence has swept in plenty of “Uh oh” along with the “Ohhh yeah.” For a moment, top radio hits from the likes of the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons were some of the most surprising sounds that FM radio has had to offer since Nirvana flipped the script in the early nineties. However, along with this renewed wave of popularity has come an incessant and incestuous parade of watered down, commercially-driven releases. It’s an unfortunate, yet inescapable, result of the growing popularity of the genre.
That being said, when you hear that three chord, clap driven, candy-pop harmonized “folk” song for the fifth time in as many hours today, instead of grabbing your ear-plugs grab a copy of The Wood Brothers‘ latest album, “The Muse,” and remind yourself that the “real deal” is still out there, probably right where you left it, working its magic a little left of center stage.
If I had to write a synopsis of “The Muse” (or any of the Wood Brothers previous albums for that matter) in 140 characters or less it would be something like, “Great folk-rock band makes another great folk-rock record,” because in its simplest form, that’s really what it is. From top to bottom the songs are catchy and delivered with excellent musicianship. The lead vocals are intoxicating, the harmonies are smartly placed and the lyrics paint vivid stories wrought with soul. However, there is so much more beyond the obvious that makes “The Muse” a great record and The Wood Brothers a great band.
From the beginning, The Wood Brothers have had a distinct sound of their own. They are a group formed by two brothers that come from very different musical backgrounds- and it shows. They write traditional music, but rarely without a few borrowed components from a swath of different genres. As a result, much of their work can sound both instantly familiar yet enticingly foreign at the same time, a brilliant contradiction that leaves the listener both content and insatiably intrigued at the end of each listen. However the genius in their unique sound doesn’t just rely on their ability to bring various influences to the table, but more importantly on the graceful subtlety in which they do so.
“The Muse” is the group’s most confident and well-rounded release to date. Throughout their previous albums the band explored the different boundaries of their sonic limits. Early hits such as “Luckiest Man” and “Postcards from Hell” proved that they were as capable as anyone in writing traditional folk gems. Songs like “One More Day” and “Shoofly Pie” showed us just how awesome jazz bass over hard blues can sound. Songs like “Lovin’ Arms” showed that the group had a tinge of the serenading balladeer in them. Throughout “The Muse,” all of these unique abilities are once again showcased and further explored.
The album opens with a tune called “Wastin’ my Mind.” Its selection as the first song of the album is perfect. The tune sounds like it starts in the middle, with full instrumentation running through a straightforward medium tempo folk-rock phrase. It rings in like an announcement to the listener that this band is a stone that never stops rolling. After a few bars the intro comes to a sudden halt and the group sings a beautifully harmonized blues chorus. Then just as quickly a jazzy bass riff transitions the song into its funky blues verse. It’s quintessential Wood Brothers and catchy as ever.
Perhaps the best song on the album is the third track, titled “Sing About It.” It begins with a slow, smokey bass line sitting hard in the pocket as whispers from a guitar and melodica swirl around it. Everything halts and Oliver sings the first line a cappella: “If you get too worried,” and on the next few words the rest of the band joins him, replying in an ominous harmony, “what you aught to do is sing.” On the final word “sing,” the band drops firmly into a deep, dragging off-beat rhythm that hits the floor harder than a bowling ball an lags behind as the yearning vocals lurch over top in a beautiful chant.
The song “Honey Jar” is a funk-rock influenced tune and ranks as one of the group’s hardest-hitting songs to date. The fast and firm bass and drums carry the song until it springs into a half-tempo blues bridge that transitions back into the fast stuff and remains there until its dizzying crescendo finish.
The title track “The Muse” is the best single material off the record. It’s a simple but superbly-written medium tempo folk ballad with sugary sweet lyrics that explore the continued love and enchantment that the singer feels towards his wife. Songs like “I Got Loaded” and “Keep Me Around” are quintessential Wood Brothers tunes, signaled by re-engineered concepts of folk rhythms that give extra groove to fun folk ditties. “Sweet Maria” is a serene and calming lullaby, while “Losin’ Streak” offers a Nashville country-music twang.
There are no disappointments on this record. The Wood Brothers have always carried with them a unique interpretation of song-writing that is entirely their own. With this formula they have created for themselves a seemingly limitless musical world in which they alone can explore— something few bands have ever achieved. Because of this, The Wood Brothers will never sound like anyone else. They will always sound like The Wood Brothers- and if “The Muse” is any indication, that’s a damn good thing.
The Wood Brothers will appear at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom this Friday, February 7. Buy tickets here.