“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.” So says the bio for The Wood Brothers and their new album, The Muse.
The Woods — Oliver on vocals and guitar and Chris on vocals and bass — probably played music together as kids. They probably, at the very least, were forced to perform “Jingle Bell Rock” at the family holiday party, while wearing matching ’70s-era faux-Nordic sweaters (and if they weren’t, there really is no justice in the world). But professionally they went in different directions — Oliver to Atlanta where he played in Tinsley Ellis’ band before founding R&B/funk outfit King Johnson. Chris studied jazz and became the Wood in Medeski Martin & Wood.
Then this, from the bio: “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.” (They added Jano Rix on drums and shuitar.)
The Muse is filed under Americana but takes its cues from rootsy soul, jazz dexterity, dirty Southern rock and deep blues swagger (especially on the gritty, sweaty “Honey Jar”). Neither King Johnson nor MM&W, The Wood Brothers is a project unto itself, though it does crackle with the sort of chemistry born from common roots and brotherly affinity. The album runs a gamut of sounds and influences — from the dreamy, orchestral folk of “Sweet Marie” with gorgeous bowed bass to the percussive sway of “I Got Loaded” to the deep groove and lyrical snap of “Who the Devil.” It all manages to feel familiar and yet cleverly revamped, as if the Woods, collectively, mastered the American song book and then decided to put the entire tool box to new use.
The Wood Brothers return to Asheville on Saturday, Sept. 20 for a show at The Orange Peel. Chris Kasper opens. 8 p.m., $20/$23.