The Wood Brothers’ new LP, suggestively titled One Drop of Truth¸ starts its program with a simple acoustic guitar bounce, a bluesy, sundance-in-the-field filigree draped in the Brothers’ characteristically pristine lo-fi varnish, which suddenly turns a little dark. The levee in Shreveport does what it’s supposed to, sings Oliver Wood, until it doesn’t. “Nothin’s ever for certain,” the chorus rings, “’til the levee breaks down/And the river/The river takes the town.”
Oliver’s lyrics were penned before the series of real-life floods this year really took a few towns. The song is probably less about floods and failing levees than it is about the casually cruel consequences of certainty. And this, maybe, is a time when chasing certainty about anything is an obstacle course without a trophy at the finish line.
We thought it was a dubious choice to open the LP, we told Chris Wood. As a stark, fairly unsettling mid-tempo piece with well-drawn lyrics, we thought it’d made a for a nice Easter egg somewhere in the bowels of mid-program. “This Is It,” with its buoyant slide guitar flourishes and gimme-some-love ’70s reveries, would have started the proceedings on a “shoot, let’s have some fun” kinda vibe.
“Yep,” Chris says, “we thought about that. Considered it.
“I dunno, there’s something about… the last record we made, Paradise, started with a very rocking tune. Electric bass, big sound, more of a rock ’n’ roll song. We kind of felt like it would be nice to start this record with, at least the beginning of the song, sounding like origins of The Wood Brothers. Just guitar, bass, Oliver’s voice. And we just loved that song, and we loved that it’s tied in, in some ways, with the imagery of the cover, the record, the title.
“And, like, what’s been happening in current events. Crazy hurricanes. Pertinent to the times. The imagery that nothing’s for certain, until levee breaks down and the water takes the town. That’s a powerful image of, when anytime in life you don’t really know what’s going to happen, when things do happen and really go wrong, the ambiguity goes away. And it’s, ‘uh-oh.’”
Brothers Oliver and Chris Wood, raised in Boulder but musically schooled in vastly different geographies and cultural disciplines, have been collaborating on one of the most vibrant and consistently engaging Americana projects for just about a decade now. Expect to hear plenty of plaudits about this record, arguably their most relaxed and, paradoxically, most seamless and confident offering. Recorded in a variety of studios in and around Nashville, the group took its time with the songs, letting them grow up, mature, ferment, become what they needed to be without the pressure of watching a single studio’s clock time.
And in keeping with recent tradition, the presence of the third guy, multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, provides the mortar between Oliver’s guitar and vocals, and Chris’s gnarled and searching basslines. Rix has been the utility infielder for these guys for several years, dropping in on keyboards and drums, texturizing here, propelling there, and Wood says that his presence has become central to the group’s sound and aesthetic freedom.
That’s Rix, for example, bouncing away on the honky-tonk clavinet burbling beneath “Sparkling Wine,” Oliver’s shuffling paean to finding relief and release through sparkling bubbly. Woods says Rix pulls off something slightly remarkable on the tune.
“What you have to know about that [song], is that not only is it a clavinet on ‘Sparkling Wine,’ but it’s not an overdub. Jano played the drum track and that entire clavinet part, just as is, in one take.”
Keys and drums, simultaneously. One take. How do you do that?
“Well, you have to be Jano Rix. You have to be a great drummer, and a very accomplished piano player, and you have to have the discipline and coordination to do them both at the same time. And that track is proof — that’s him performing all of that, all at once.”
But the record, like all of the Wood Brothers’ music, isn’t about calisthenics. Mining blues and gospel, folk and country, the trio crafts a uniquely personal and deceptively insightful set of pieces, never too long for their own good, never too showy to steal the spotlight from the lyrics, and never too beholden to their own influences to sound like yesterday’s news.
The LP nearly concludes with the title track, a joyously delivered testament of devotion to what exactly? Realness? We live, they say, in a post-truth world.
Screw that, sings Oliver Wood.
“I’d rather die hungry/than feastin’ on lies/Gimme one drop of truth/One drop of truth/I cannot deny.”
Are we reaching when we hear a statement about what’s blaring over the megaphone these days?
“Heh, well it wasn’t written with that in mind, but I’m glad it has a more universal meaning to it,” Chris says. “We weren’t unaware of that.”
But if that tune is arguably carrying a lot of the album’s psychic load, the program ends on a less approachable note on “Can’t Look Away.”
“There’s a sweet little farmhouse in Virginia/Full of guns and ammunition/In the driveway there’s some pickup trucks/With shotgun racks and camouflage paint/Down the path to the river/There’s some good ’ol boy drinkin’ and fishin’/And when the shit hits the fan/You know just who to call/Or who to blame.”
“It’s pretty simple, really,” Chris says. “The lyrics say it in the chorus: Nothing’s black or white, nothing’s this or that. We’re inundated on media and news these days with so many stereotypes, clichés, that tell us that things are right or left, or liberal and conservative, right or wrong, and real life just doesn’t work that way. Everything’s much more ambiguous.
“So I think that song’s looking at those things that people might immediately judge as one way or the other, and realizing that there’s a lot of nuance here that goes beyond good or bad. And we’re fascinated by that stuff. … We’re fascinated by those things that have that ambiguity, we want to judge them, and we want to know what’s right and wrong, but we know in our hearts that there’s more to it than that.
“And so we keep staring at it.”
So there’s certainty, when the river takes the town, and there’s uncertainty about almost everything else. Look closely, and maybe truth is the only certainty you need. Look for it, or wait for it to find you. Be careful what you wish for.
But in the meantime, you can’t look away.