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The Muse represents a quantum leap for the Wood Brothers as they fully integrate multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jano Rix into the band, a process nurtured with not inconsiderable expertise by producer Buddy Miller. At the same time, the album suggests avenues of exploration for the threesome as they continue their evolution.
Rix distinguishes himself immediately here by supplying a bouncy fluent piano foundation to "Wasting My Mind." Interwoven with horns (saxophonist Jim Hoke, trombonist Bill Humber, trumpeter Steve Herman) vividly reminiscent of The Band's work with Allen Toussaint circa Rock of Ages (Capitol, 1972), it's reverent homage because its roots in blues and jazz are those of The Woods themselves (and Miller worked with the late Levon Helm). Hints of that same ingenuity reappear on the closing "Firewater," which is otherwise a clear restatement of the gospel elements of the Wood Brothers' roots. The arrangement cements the individual components of the Woods' well-developed personal style even as it opens up possibilities for work with a larger ensemble.
"Neon Tombstone" is a wry acknowledgement of mortality as common in the Brothers' discography as the earthy likes of "Honey Jar." "Sing About It" hearkens to the Woods as a duo, its acoustic foundation and emphasis on vocal harmony, not to mention its message of positivism in the lyrics, the definition of their attitude as much as their sound. The equanimity at the heart of "Losin' Streak" manifests itself in the smooth full three-part vocals further reflected in the surrounding acoustic textures, seasoned by a winsome harmonica.
Kudos to producer Buddy Miller for preserving the spontaneity of the musicianship here (on the inside of this colorful triple-fold digi-pak there's a great photo of the studio where the recording took place) and on the title song, which offers evidence of Oliver Wood's growth as a songwriter. This rumination on the major elements of life (abiding relationships, birth of children, the creative impulse) comes in a hushed delivery that evokes the impact of such events as they hit home, even as his plain-spoken lyrics are evidence of his grasp of the nuances of emotion.
Though The Wood Brothers evolve as composers, they remain modest enough to offer admiration of materialnot to mention the virtues of a bandfrom other reliable sources, which here comes in the form of Los Lobos' "I Got Loaded;" yet another track hearkening to early Woods, it nevertheless transcends regression with the crisp drum work of Rix as he interacts with Chris Woods' supple bass work.
Those assets are also at the fore of "Who the Devil," where the Wood Brothers sound larger than just a three-piece unit, particularly when they launch into a churning instrumental break: initially led by Oliver's electric guitar, soon overtaken by Rix' percussion, then slowly but gracefully lowered to the ground on Chris' bowed bass. In those few seconds, the group confidently exhibits its growth and authoritatively suggests its next likely avenue of evolution as a more ambitiously improvisational band.
Track Listing: Wastin’ My Mind; Neon Tombstone; Sing About It; Honey Jar; The Muse;
Keep Me Around;
Sweet Maria; I Got Loaded; Who the Devil; Losin' Streak; Firewater.
Personnel: Chris Wood: vocals, bass, harmonica, guitar, mandolin ; Oliver Wood:
mandocello ; Jano Rix: vocals, drums, shuitar, percussion, melodica,
Buddy Miller: baritone guitar ; Regina McCrary: background vocals ; Anne
background vocals ; Jim Hoke: saxophone, horn arrangements ; Bill Huber:
bass trombone ; Steve Herrman: trumpet, cornet.