The murky sounds of a bass travel up a dusky lane framed by cooing backup singers. It follows the shuffling organ peals into a two-bit Big Easy bar straight out of detective noir. The musical intro to the Wood Brothers' "Sing About It" slowly merges into a nimble blues spiritual, in which vocalist/guitarist Oliver Wood sings, "If you got a trouble, what you ought to do is sing ... sing about your trouble, and it just might pass."
The track, from the Wood Brothers' 2013 breakout album The Muse, is emblematic of the record's intoxicating blend of light and dark elements. "The title track in particular is about this interplay and its effect on us. What that song encompasses is the idea that we get our inspiration as artists from all kinds of things and all sides of the spectrum," says Oliver, who, along with his brother Chris, make up the Wood Brothers.
Elsewhere on the album, there's a fella who wants a "Neon Tombstone" so people won't forget him, but won't let anybody close enough to love him. The soulful, calypso-tinged "I Got Loaded" veers between a party song and a twelve-step plea. On the loud, funky throwdown "Who the Devil" Oliver puts it all in perspective. "You wish you were thunder and lightning," he sings. "And all you are is stuck with the blues."
The album represents the siblings' first real commercial success in a decade together. The fact that it charted on indie, folk, rock, and country reflects its broad, eclectic appeal. It's also a departure from their prior releases thanks to the addition of multi-intrumentalist Jano Rix. The new keyboard/percussionist's wide range of skills bring a new element to a band that might've been previously best described as the Wood Brothers Plus One.
"We wanted to expand our horizons a little bit," Oliver says. "Since we added Jano as our drummer, it felt like we were making a real band record as opposed to Chris and I hiring someone else to play on our record and then touring with them. This feels more like we have a rocking unit."
Oliver and his upright bass-playing brother Chris grew up in a creative family. Their poet mother and biologist father loved the acoustic guitar and American roots music. It left an indelible stamp on the boys.
As adults, the brothers went their separate ways. Oliver began the Atlanta blues outfit King Johnson, releasing a couple of albums. Chris studied at the New England Conservatory before co-founding the popular jazz/jam group Medeski Martin & Wood.
Years later, having forged their own careers, the brothers reconnected during a family gathering and discovered a desire to make music together. The Wood Brothers made their studio debut with 2006's Ways Not to Lose. They eventually took another step closer to each other by moving their families to Nashville, which inspired an even tighter-knit musical chemistry during the writing of The Muse.
"I lived in Atlanta my whole adult life and Chris lived in New York his whole adult life, so it wasn't easy for us to collaborate on things," says Oliver. "It's challenging anyway to collaborate on songs because they're very personal. Chris and I really appreciated being in the same place and being able to sit in each other's living rooms and work on music and not feel rushed — and just make it fun."
The Muse demonstrates the band's greater crackle and dynamism, in part from Oliver's increased use of acoustic guitar. The live shows reflect this with acoustic sets bookended by louder, electric-based segments.
"I've always been an electric guitar player, so I've never been a great acoustic guitar player, but I love the sound of acoustic guitar and acoustic music," says Oliver. "I also love that we're able to perform in a very stripped-down acoustic way and then turn around and do a full drum set and electric guitar and be more on the rock side of things. I like the variety, and sometimes its nice to have them contrast each other."
Producer Buddy Miller helped the Wood Brothers achieve the crisp, variegated sound while making it feel like a cohesive whole. A true Nashville icon, Miller has played guitar alongside everyone — Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Robert Plant — and produced some great albums (Solomon Burke's Nashville, Patty Griffin's Grammy-winning Downtown Church). His soft-touch direction impressed Wood, creating the perfect work atmosphere.
"He has a real subtle and gentle approach where he just became one of the guys and he was sort of hanging out," Oliver says. "He has a wealth of knowledge, but he brings it up and uses it at just the right times. It feels like he's being really passive, but I think he just exudes this kind of calm and fun that is really infectious. It's subtle what he does, but it's great."
The album's thematic tone was seeded by a realization that inspiration is not solely a province of good fortune. Though traditionally the muse is represented by a beautiful woman, the brothers recognized that their most inspired work was often influenced by negative events. So the muse couldn't possibly be a creature of pure beauty, but rather a yin and yang of good and bad tidings.
"We get our inspiration as artists from really dark things and really happy things," Oliver explains. "It is death and misery sometimes that inspires us as much as love and beauty, and we thought all the songs encompassed that concept — that the dark and light side of things are both important."