Just like good Southern cooking, sometimes the most important ingredient is time. For The Wood Brothers, part of it’s the time they spent growing up together. Part of it’s the time they spent apart — Oliver fronting the blues-based band King Johnson and Chris as bassist for Jazz-funk trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. Their collective influences were first displayed on 2006’s “Ways Not To Lose,” an exciting mix of blues, folk, and rock — stripped to their essentials (most songs containing only guitar, upright bass and vocals.). And while Chris’ skills on the bass and his backing vocals were already very important to the sound of the album, “Ways” was still more of an Oliver Wood album — Chris only having a hand in writing 2 of the songs. Two more years in the smoker, and 2008’s “Loaded” came along, and it was definitely looking like a much more united front — with 7 of the 9 originals being collaborations between the brothers. The remaining 2 originals included a song from Oliver and one from Chris — both very intimate songs about the death of their mother in 2007. Chris’ original, “Don’t Look Back” was the first brothers song where he took lead vocal duties, and he handled them well. On “Loaded,” the brothers greatly expanded there sound — especially in the number of collaborating musicians, and while that certainly created some great moments, the album may have suffered from too many ideas. And, while it may have been the better album, it just didn’t have the immediacy of “Ways.” The 3 covers in a row near the album’s end were probably too long a side trip from the main attraction (i.e., their songs). In 2009, the brothers released “Up Above My Head,” a very impressive covers album that was a nice holdover until “Smoke Ring Halo” and perhaps a good way to expose their influences, while letting their main albums be for their songs.
Three more years cooking has brought The Wood Brothers a full-time drummer (Tyler Greenwell, formerly of The Codetalkers) and a new record label — Zac Brown’s Southern Ground, who are setting their sites on AAA radio (the Adult Alternative Album format) with their new single “Shoofly Pie.” While the double entendre of the lyric may not be indicative of the album as a whole, the song has an infectious beat and is a solid choice. Lyrically, the album mines similar territory of relationships (life, love, death, drink, etc.) with a tilt toward the spiritual that’s been so effective on the first 2 albums. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s up-beat, it’s contemplative, it’s winning, it’s losing, and it’s all accomplished in a tidy 10 songs — all originals, all collaborations. They’ve redistilled their influences into a much tighter sound, recalling “Ways” but still allowing for some of the expansion they played with on “Loaded” — including Chris handling lead vocals on 2 of the songs here. The right songs don’t always add up to the right album, so whoever sequenced “Smoke Ring Halo” deserves credit because it’s a great listen front to back (A specific case in point is the juxtaposition of the aforementioned “Shoofly Pie” and “Pay Attention,” a slower song about the strains of children and life in general on a spousal relationship.) . All the time has paid off with the most complete portrait of The Wood Brothers yet released and perhaps the best album so far this year.