Review: The Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood Keeps Smilin’ With Friends On His First Solo Release

Oliver Wood
Always Smilin’
(Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers)
4 out of 5 stars

The concept of frontmen (or women) releasing solo projects while still a member of their successful bands can be a dicey proposition. For every Lindsey Buckingham or Pete Townshend side venture that clicks, there are plenty that fall flat (Mick Jagger anyone?). Certainly the pandemic that has taken groups off the road for over a year has encouraged those who may not have considered going it alone in normal circumstances to give it a try. That’s where Oliver Wood, frontman/singer/songwriter for The Wood Brothers, found himself.

Even before the virus he had recorded sessions in the brothers’ studio in conjunction with musical friends who would swing through Nashville, without a release in mind. But the events of the past year changed that as Oliver realized he had enough material. The result will be welcomed by Wood Brothers’ fans and may even create new ones.

Since Oliver writes and sings the bulk of the material in his full time endeavor, and The Wood Brothers’ eclectic sound already incorporates folk, blues, pop, gospel and country, most of these songs could be included on any of their discs.

Having fellow band member Jano Rix contributing to five of the dozen tracks also makes the The Wood Brothers’ connection even closer. The aspect that differentiates these tunes is the inclusion of other artists. Susan Tedeschi singing tough on “Get the Blues,” and horn players on the same cut, bring a different, slightly fuller sound. Bassist Ted Pecchio’s style is less jazz and somewhat more rock oriented than brother Chris’ playing. There is one instance where Oliver goes it alone for the sparse folk of “Unbearable Heart.”

Otherwise moments such as the sprightly piano driven Little Feat influenced “Roots” and the soulful groove of “Face of Reason” could easily find their way onto a Wood Brothers collection with only moderately adjusted arrangements. Oliver reconnects with Chris Long, a founding member of his ‘80s outfit King Johnson, to co-write a few selections such as the jaunty funk/gospel of “Fine Line.” It’s a sweet reunion that feels like the two haven’t lost a step throughout the decades. He digs into “The Battle is Over (But the War Goes On),” best known by delta bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, with fervent, churchy enthusiasm and brings backwoods blues to the opening “Kindness,” which features Oliver’s trademarked wryly humorous lyrics, He doesn’t talk down and he doesn’t talk up.

He is in fine voice throughout as his frayed edged vocals remain distinctive and bring upbeat qualities to these songs the album’s title implies. That’s true even on “Molasses” where he’s singing about death with, She drowned in molasses down on Purity Street/Last thing she tasted was sticky and sweet. The fun he is having playing with assorted friends shines through, making this a wonderful side road and a perfect addition to The Wood Brothers’ already diverse and consistently delightful catalog.      

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