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Published: 2011/09/27
by Sam Robertson

The Wood Brothers
Smoke Ring Halo

Southern Ground

Smoke Ring Halo, the third album from The Wood Brothers, finds them continuing to explore rootsy Americana while creating their most musically rich and diverse album yet. The Wood Brothers, featuring singer/songwriter Oliver and bassist Chris (also of Medeski, Martin & Wood), showcase Oliver’s Van Morrison-like soulful voice and warm acoustic guitar melodies along with Chris’s always impressive bass playing. If one didn’t know that Oliver and Chris were related, they would assume the two musicians came from very different musical backgrounds, as Oliver fronts blues band King Johnson while Chris is a member of groundbreaking experimental jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. But although Oliver and Chris play very different music separately, together they have found a common ground of warm Americana and show off a telepathic musical chemistry that was fused from years of playing together while growing up.

The Wood Brothers first two albums were mostly acoustic affairs, and the first track of Smoke Ring Halo, “Mary Anna,” features what we’ve come to expect from The Wood Brothers – a catchy acoustic guitar riff, rich vocal harmonies, and outstanding bass work from Chris. But the song also has a bit of an added thump thanks to drummer Tyler Greenwell. Greenwell joined The Wood Brothers for Smoke Ring Halo, and his addition frees up The Wood Brothers to delve into more musical styles than just acoustic roots music. Although the first track isn’t much of a departure for The Wood Brothers, the second track on Smoke Ring Halo, “Shoofly Pie,” sure is. “Shoofly Pie” opens with some funky bass playing from Chris Wood accompanied by a steady drumbeat before Oliver’s bluesy guitar joins in and leads the band through romping blues with ripping slide guitar.

“Shoofly Pie” isn’t the only song that finds The Wood Brothers exploring new sounds. The soulful gospel of “Made It Up The Mountain” is perhaps the most surprising song on the album, full of organ flourishes from John Medeski, tasty guitar licks from Oliver and a powerful backing chorus. Songs like the title track are less adventurous, but just as successful, as it is the kind of song that would have fit right in with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, with an impassioned vocal from Oliver backed Medeski’s swirling organ. Smoke Ring Halo still sounds unquestionably like The Wood Brothers, but finds them unafraid of trying new things. Not only are The Wood Brothers embracing new sounds with Smoke Ring Halo, but they also embrace a new band identity with the addition of Greenwell and a shift in songwriting. Whereas on The Wood Brothers previous efforts Oliver wrote nearly every song, on Smoke Ring Halo each song is a collaboration with Chris, who even takes two lead vocals, with “Rainbow” being particularly strong.

With Medeski, Martin & Wood taking more and more time off from touring and recording over the past few years, The Wood Brothers have evolved from a fun, loose side project into a focused and growing band. Naturally there have been some growing pains along the way, as the songwriting on Smoke Ring Halo is a bit uneven at times. But the risks that The Wood Brothers take pay off more often than not, and although this is their third album together, Smoke Ring Halo feels almost like their first real album as an established, growing band willing to take some chances.

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