The Wood Brothers’ Loaded comes off like a shot of old-time religion, and the more I listen, the more I'm ready to testify. It's a tasty stew of bluegrass, folk, gospel, and Southern rock, and the kind of unclassifiable Americana that unfortunately often slips between the cracks — there's plenty of picking and strumming going on here, but it's dished up with a jazzy, loose-limbed syncopation and an alt-rock sensibility. Sadly, as we all know, in the music industry if folks can't slap a label on you, they're just as likely to pass you over.
The brothers have added a few fellow musicians since their previous outing, 2005's Ways To Lose (the core act is Oliver on guitar and Chris on acoustic bass), without spoiling the stripped-down simplicity that made that earlier effort so appealing. It's a canny setting for Oliver Wood’s twangy tenor; he plays every creak and wheeze in his voice like an old squeeze box or musical saw.
Yet for all its rootsy geniality, the songs express a modern, complicated take on relationships — whether with a lover or with God, it’s often hard to tell which.
There’s the yearning shuffle of “Lovin’ Arms,” the ruefully apologetic “Loaded” (“But sometimes the tip of my tongue / Is the barrel of a gun / And it’s loaded”), the shrug of resignation in “Walk Away,” the wary woundedness of “Don’t Look Back,” the fragile valediction of “Still Close.” Don’t go looking for angst or depression, though – like their colleague Amos Lee (who contributes backing vocals on two tracks), the Wood Brothers' melodic groove and buoyant rhythm just won’t go very dark, though they can handle brooding melancholy pretty well.
The album’s leavened with foot-stompers, too, like “Pray Enough,” the snarky “Twisted,” a raucous cover of “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor,” and the Dylanesque satire “Postcards From Hell” (they also pull out a nifty acoustic cover of Dylan’s “Bucket of Rain”). Their reggae-flavored take on Jimi Hendrix’ “Angel” is a downright revelation.
Loaded dances to its own sweet drumbeat, and it’s a joy from start to finish. In this American Idol-ized era, a low-key, unpretentious album like this comes as a welcome relief.