Last year, I spilled quite a bit of virtual ink covering the acclaimed folk/roots/Americana act and JOVM mainstays The Wood Brothers. Now, as you may recall, I caught the acclaimed trio at The Vic Theatre in Chicago, while they were touring to support their sixth, full-length album, 2018’s self-produced and recorded One Drop of Truth. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with them but their Vic Theatre set was so impressive that I quickly became a fan.
Last year, the Nashville-based trio released another live album Live at the Fillmore, which further cemented their long-held reputation for live shows centered around performances that defy categorization: their delivery often seem to live at the intersection of arena rock energy and small theater intimacy, while boldly blurring the lines between folk, rock, blues, soul, funk, roots music, alt-country and Americana among other things. During a busy touring schedule, the trio found the time to write and record the highly-anticipated follow-up to One Drop of Truth, Kingdom In My Mind.
Throughout the band’s history together, the trio’s creative process would generally begin with the band writing songs before they got to the studio and then deliberately set out to record them. However, Kingdom In My Mind found the band beginning the process of writing and recording without initially realizing it: When they started, they all thought they were just simply breaking in and test driving their new Nashville recording studio/rehearsal space by tracking a series of extended, instrumental jam sessions.
“If we had known we were making a record, we probably would have been too self-conscious to play what we played,” Chris Wood reflects on the writing and recording process of their forthcoming album. “At the time, we just thought we were jamming to break in our new studio, so we felt free to explore all these different ways of playing together without worrying about form or structure. It was liberating.”
“We weren’t performing songs,” Oliver adds. “We were just improvising and letting the music dictate everything. Somebody would start playing, and then we’d all jump into the groove with them and see where it went. Normally when recording, you’re thinking about your parts and your performances, but with these sessions, we were just reacting to each other and having fun in the moment.”
After listening to their jams, the members of the band realized that they captured something undeniably alive and uninhibited. Much like a sculptor, Chris Wood took those sprawling improvised recordings and began to carefully chisel out verses, choruses, bridges and solos until distinctive songs began to take shape. From there, the band divvied up the material that spoke to them most and began writing lyrics both separately and together.
Thematically the album is an extensive meditation and reckoning with circumstance, mortality and human nature centered around vivid, almost novelistic character studies and unflinching self-examination. The material’s cast of characters all attempt to find strength and solace in accepting what lies beyond our limited control, ultimately pondering how we find contentment and peace in a confusing, chaotic and frightening world. “We all have these little kingdoms inside of our minds,” the band’s Chris Wood says in press notes. “And without really planning it out, the songs on this album all ended up exploring that idea in some way or another. They look at the ways we deal with our dreams and our regrets and our fears and our loves. They look at the stories we tell ourselves and the ways we balance the darkness and the light.”
But while the lyrics dig into deep philosophical territory, the arrangements draw from a broad sonic and stylistic spectrum. Last year, I wrote about the slow-burning, Dr. John/New Orleans-like jazz ballad “Alabaster,” a song centered around an empathetic portrait of a woman, who has broken free of her old life and relocated far away for a much-needed fresh start. And while featuring an incredibly novelistic attention to detail, the song manages to feel improvised yet simultaneously crafted. Kingdom In My Mind‘s second single was the slow-burning country blues “Cry Over Nothing,” a meditation on the ego, perspective and fate told with a playfully fatalistic sensibility. Sometimes, even the sky is against you — and there ain’t a thing you can do about it. The album’s third single “Little Bit Sweet” was centered around some of the material’s first batch of improvised instrumentation from the early jam sessions that birthed it. Centered around a bouncy bass line and shimmering guitars, the song is part old-timey lament and part world-weary sigh focusing on mortality, the passing of time and getting older, and the impermanent nature of all things. And yet through the tears and heartache, there’s a sense of acceptance and awe of the things that the song’s narrator can’t understand. It just is — and sometimes it’s wonderful because of that.
The Wood Brothers begin the new year with Kingdom in My Mind’s fourth and latest single, the zydeco-tinged stomp “The One I Love” is a meditation on love, and the search for the balance between darkness and light. The song seems to suggest that balance can be found in something seemingly small yet so very vital to all of us — those we love. When our world seems so bleak, so uncertain and so devoid of hope or kindness, we should all take comfort and solace in hopefully having someone who loves and supports us, who will be by our side. It may be rare but man, when we find it, it’s special.