On Mary Anna, the opening tune to Smoke Ring Halo, the fine third studio album by the Wood Brothers, a loose, roots-driven groove caught somewhere between a folksy rumination and a blues shuffle collapses into a ragged country waltz.
Three songs later, on Stumbled In, a jagged electric guitar riff lumbers under a fanciful vocal line that outlines the saga of an accidental entrance to heaven.
And at the album's conclusion, Blue and Green offers an unhurried blues-folk melody that lingers like a summery breeze, slowly working its way into a merry blast of back-yard gospel with swelling colors of spiritually inclined brass.
So where does this place the duo of guitarist/lead vocalist Oliver Wood and sibling bassist/sometime-singer Chris Wood? If the past two albums by the Wood Brothers glided past most obvious labels, Smoke Ring Halo defies categorization altogether. But that happens to be the recording's (and the duo's) biggest charm.
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A touch of unvarnished blues-soul here, a dash of folksy intimacy there and an overall musical intimacy that makes its 10 tunes flow with the immediacy of a live performance, Smoke Ring Halo further fortifies the Wood Brother's rootsy appeal.
There are no great stylistic leaps this time out, to be sure. Oliver Wood still sings the high, wiry expression of a young Van Morrison, whether he is riding the earthy boogie grinds of Shoofly Pie or surfing the sleek, almost jazzy cool that pours out the homey neo-gospel drive of Made It Up the Mountain. Chris Wood, however, turns the tables a little, if only for his rare turns on lead vocals. Brother Chris' singing neatly enhances his own slow-poke bass and harmonica colors to give The Shore a subtle but distant glow while he plays with equal ease off of Brother Oliver's slide-guitar orchestration during Rainbow.
Drummer Tyler Greenwell is added throughout, making the Wood Brothers something of a trio act while providing Smoke Ring Halo with a steady but refreshingly unprocessed beat. But his playing never detracts from the record's open, cordial sound.
Finally, there is the guest list, which ranges from old pals including keyboardist John Medeski (the Woods' former producer and Chris' past-and-present colleague in the progressive jazz/jam trio Medeski Martin & Wood) and country star Zac Brown (who, aside from being one of the affirming background voices on Blue and Green, is Smoke Ring Halo's executive producer).
The thing is, though, these are only the components of this exquisitely diversified album. Slip it on and the boundaries blur as to what is blues, what might be country and what certainly stands as soul. What you hear will be a welcoming set of unfussy songs that should serve these final days of summer well indeed.