Life’s better lived as a collaborative thing, connecting with others who share your vision. This thread weaves through Oliver Wood’s solo debut Always Smilin (via Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers), with its aura of revivalist folk gospel jam session.
As an artist whose roots run deep into the foundation of American folk music, Wood’s career has intertwined with diverse musicians spanning an array of genres: blues, roots, jazz, and Americana. Wood refined his brand of soul music with Chris Long in King Johnson and his stint as frontman of The Wood Brothers (with Jano Rix). Now, Wood’s album weaves a musical tapestry whose brilliance is born from the fellow masters he’s worked with throughout his life.
Recognizing his community, Wood’s goal of creating a creative environment blossomed in Always Smilin. Alongside the aforementioned Chris Long and Jano Rix, Wood taps Susan Tedeschi, Phil Cook (Hiss Golden Messenger), John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Tyler Greenwell (Tedeschi Trucks Band), Phil Madeira, singer-songwriter Carsie Blanton, and his wife Rebecca Wood to create a festival groove vibe into these ten tracks.
Opener “Kindness” sets the bar high, a lyrical analysis of what may be humanity’s solution to societal division. It has a Joel Weeks music video that must not be missed! “Roots” drops into a piano-driven groove with the space for Wood’s gritty vocal delivery to merge with gang vocals and organ in a revialist sonic palette. This one hits home: we are all burdened with stuff that trips us up, and we are alone unless we choose not to be.
“Get The Blues” is a rip-it-up, bluesy, jazz-horn-laden beauty. Certainly, this musical outcry is a shout out to the heavens, to the deity of your choice. The spiritual “Came From Nothin” celebrates our stumbling humanity, Oliver Wood-style. This song’s brilliance is that we all have some inner perfection, and collaboration puts each piece in the perfect place. “Molasses” aches and shines, a guitar-wailing balladeer’s homage to what I hear as the death of music in a post-pandemic world. It’s both celebratory and grieving: how many members of the music community were lost during the pandemic, both in lives and music venues?
Wood turned his songwriter’s microscope on society at large on the record. The song of the record is “The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On),” which serves up political folk rock at its finest. Heavy, gritty, sparse musicality leaves space for each note to resonate around the haunting lyrics. “Face of Reason” dishes up a strut-worthy anthem to stick it to the man, do what brings you joy, and all of those keys to a peaceful life. This is a revival, after all. Heading towards the album’s conclusion, “Soul Of This Town,” with its melancholy tempo and plaintive lyrical delivery, reminds us that communities are the true soul of small town America, vanishing threads weaving our cultural landscape.
“Unbearable Heart” might drift its way into the psyche of Brown Bird fans. “Climbing High Mountains Tryin’ To Get Home” defies explanation. A songwriter’s masterclass in metaphor, this sonic celebration seems perfect. Bonus track “Needed Time” is that little bit of extra, just for fans. The song closes out Oliver Wood’s revival Always Smilin as a gift from his community to yours.–Lisa Whealy