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Published: 2006/04/16
by Karl Kukta

Ways Not to Lose – The Wood Brothers

Blue Note Records 43120

Anyone familiar with the lyrics of Robert Hunter understands the power of the card game as a metaphor for life: it is simultaneously a game of skill and a game of chance. Sometimes its rewards are strictly merit-based, sometimes pure luck, but more often than not a combination of the two determines who takes the pot. And yet all the skill, experience and integrity in the world still cannot guarantee that you won’t end up broke and alone with your teeth kicked in.

The debut album from the Wood Brothers accepts and confronts this reality. And in its title lies its strategy: Ways Not to Lose. Over twelve sparse and weighted tracks, brothers Oliver (of King Johnson) and Chris (of Medeski Martin & Wood) wrestle with some of the bigger questions in life — and when the songs can’t find a pragmatic solution, they cling to the hope that something larger will save them (but always still worried that it might not).

The album opens with “One More Day,” a shuffling jazzy number that offers patience as the only response to hardship. The optimism isn’t justified, but Chris’ hip-shaking basslines and Oliver’s vocals hit a nerve, and like church-goers being riled up by a passionate Sunday morning sermon, we allow our emotions to drown out our rationality. But just as we are ready to spread the good news that time will heal all wounds, we are confronted (in “Tried and Tempted”) by a man for whom waiting has brought no solace, a man who has reached his limit of pain and temptation and would rather end his life than have to face his failure another day.

Faith, hope, redemption, truth, angels, prayers, fate, the spirit’ — the lexicon of the Bible, and its influence on Southern folk music, is everywhere present in Ways Not to Lose. Like the initial round of cards, the protestant Christian world-view is what the Wood Brothers have been dealt to work with, and the songs are some of the card-tricks and strategies they’ve learned over the years. Some of the numbers (“Truth is the Light” ) fully embrace Christian answers; some (the amazing “Chocolate on My Tongue”) view life’s journey through a hedonistic lens; and others (“Luckiest Man”) try and find a middle ground where one can be happy.

But in the end, the guidance and suggestions offered are overwhelmed by the amount of mystery and chance that prevents us from controlling our own lives. Like the album cover, which shows a disembodied hand reaching down to give us a card (one that we only see the back of), sometimes the only way not to lose is through pure luck. Or divine intervention. And if the two are in fact different, you’d have better odds if you believed in both.

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