Chris Wood had a scrap of a song — seemed like a chorus — scribbled in a notebook. He played it for his older brother, Oliver, who’d had a verse lying around he didn’t know what to do with. The two pieces, composed months apart, one in urban Atlanta and the other deep in the Catskills, dovetailed musically and lyrically: the verse about a man regretting chasing unattainable women, the high-lonesome, harmony-driven refrain of “When I die, I wanna be sent back to try, try again.”
“Neon Tombstone” wasn’t the first song that Chris, a founding member of jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, and Oliver, formerly Tinsley Ellis’s guitarist, had written — since 2006, they’d released three studio albums of Americana as The Wood Brothers. But it was the first one they’d written like this. “This is how a song is supposed to come together,” Oliver remembers thinking. “There was some chance, some randomness, to it.”
The experience marked a deeper level of collaboration for The Wood Brothers, a newfound fraternal synchronicity that’s captured on their latest album, ‘The Muse.’ Within the first few bars of opener “Wastin’ My Mind,” which could pass for a lost cut from “The Last Waltz,” it’s clear the brothers are operating on a different plane than when we last heard them, on 2011’s ‘Smoke Ring Halo.’ The components are similar: the dialed-in vocal harmonies, Oliver’s gritty acoustic guitar, Chris’s virtuosic upright bass, the warrior poet lyrics. But here there’s a glue — a yellowy carpenter’s glue, one imagines — holding it all together. The cohesion comes from the brothers having spent the last two years on the road with new full-time member Jano Rix, a drummer and ace-in-the-hole multi-instrumentalist, whereas they relied on session musician-friends to fill out previous albums. Jano’s additional harmonies give credence to the old trope that while two family members often harmonize preternaturally, it takes a third, non-related singer for the sound to really shine. And then there’s Jano’s work on his literally patented percussion instrument, the “shuitar,” a shitty acoustic guitar rigged up with tuna cans and other noisemakers, which, in his hands, becomes a veritable drum kit.
Starting with debut ‘Ways Not To Lose,’ which NPR described as a collection of “gracious little songs [that] sound like they were born on a front porch during a beautiful sunset,” The Wood Brothers have made albums like you’re not supposed to anymore — recording mostly live, warts and all. But on ‘The Muse,’ they double down on the production values of a purer time. Whereas ‘Smoke Ring Halo’ was tracked with the musicians playing in separate rooms, here Chris, Oliver and Jano often circled around a tree of microphones, a couple feet apart from one another, and simply played the songs, with even the lead vocals being recorded on the spot. The arrangement is a producer’s nightmare — the different sounds bleed into the various mics, limiting mixing options and ruling out the possibility of fixing mistakes — but the band had two willing accomplices: legendary country musician Buddy Miller, who produced the album, and Nashville studio vet Mike Poole, who engineered.
“I just love how Mike and Buddy really embraced that idea,” Oliver says. Miller, an award-winning producer, guitarist and solo artist, has performed and recorded with icons such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Oliver continues, “I hear little things that are out of tune or imperfect, and I love it. That’s what I like about old recordings – they just did it, and that’s what happened.”
From early in their childhood in Boulder, CO., Chris and Oliver were steeped in American roots music. Their father, a molecular biologist, would perform classic songs at campfires and family gatherings, while their mother, a poet, instilled a passion for storytelling and turn of phrase. The brothers bonded over bluesmen like Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins, but their paths, musical and otherwise, would diverge. Oliver moved to Atlanta, where he played guitar in cover bands before earning a spot in Tinsley Ellis’s touring act. At Ellis’s behest, Oliver began to sing and then founded King Johnson, a hard-touring group that would release six albums of blues-inflected R&B, funk and country over the next 12 years. Chris, meanwhile, studied jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music, moved to New York City and, in the early ‘90s, formed Medeski Martin & Wood, which over the next two decades would become a cornerstone of contemporary jazz and abstract music.
After pursuing separate musical careers for some 15 years, the brothers performed together at a show in North Carolina: Oliver sat in with MM&W following King Johnson’s opening set. “I realized we should be playing music together,” Chris recalls. Soon after, the pair recorded a batch of Oliver’s songs, channeling the shared musical heroes of their youth while seizing on their own individual strengths — Oliver’s classic songwriting, Chris’s forward-thinking musicianship. A demo landed them a record deal with Blue Note, who released ‘Ways Not To Lose’ in 2006. Follow-up ‘Loaded’ came in 2008; after covers EP ‘Up Above My Head’ the next year, the band moved to Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Artists for ‘Smoke Ring Halo’ and then 2012’s ‘Live, Volume One: Sky High’ and ‘Live, Volume Two: Nail and Tooth.’
On ‘The Muse,’ following the opening one-two of “Wastin’ My Mind” and “Neon Tombstone,” the album shuffles between bluesy, classic country and swampy funk, mining the brothers’ timeless influences (Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, Charles Mingus) while sounding fresh enough to win over fans of today’s mainstream roots-music acts (The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons). The title track shows Oliver’s songwriting at its most tender and autobiographical to date, as he sings of his “finest work yet” — his newborn child — in his endearingly offbeat voice, which The New York Times calls “gripping.” Chris takes the vocal lead on “Sweet Maria” and “Losin’,” and capably so, while on his standup bass, he’s often playful, even rascally, imbuing the songs with humor with his warm, unpredictable notes. Jano, when not banging on his shuitar, adds refreshing flourishes of piano and melodica.
‘The Muse’ marks another milestone for The Wood Brothers: it’s the first full-length they’ve recorded at Southern Ground Studios in Nashville. In the way that Manhattan becomes its own character in an old Woody Allen movie, the live room at Southern Ground plays a key role on the album, making its warm presence felt throughout. (There’s even a little hiss from the analog tape machine.) The choice of location was practical, given Nashville’s rich history and network of musicians, but also symbolic: The Wood Brothers are now officially a Nashville-based band, with Oliver having relocated in 2012, and Chris recently following. It’s the first time the brothers have lived in the same city since they left their parents’ nest; both are eager, along with Nashville local Jano, to plumb the sense of collaboration they tapped into during the fateful “Neon Tombstone” writing session. As Oliver says of ‘The Muse,’ “This is the first record that really feels like a band record. It’s taken years for us to really feel like we can collaborate, and I think this is the pinnacle of it so far.”
Photo courtesy of David Barnum