Now playing: New CDs with solid sounds

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
The Wood Brothers, with singer-guitarist Oliver Wood, has released the album "The Muse," and will play Dec. 8 at Belly Up.
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times |

The Wood Brothers, “The Muse,” produced by Buddy Miller (Southern Ground Artists)

With five studio albums, plus a few live recordings and an EP, over eight years, the Wood Brothers passed by the “side project” stage awhile ago, even if bassist Chris Wood remains best known for his membership in the avant-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. But “The Muse” does more than solidify the group’s status as a legitimate, ongoing entity. Here, Chris and brother Oliver, the guitarist and primary singer, along with drummer Jano Rix, start with folk-blues and expand that template with all sorts of thoughtful, tasteful flourishes.

The band puts everything it’s got into the wonderful “Neon Tombstone.” The lyric is a stirring self-reflection: “When I die I want to be sent back to try, try again / ‘Cause I’m not ready to let go of the pain.” The rhythm swells and recedes in a powerful way reminiscent of The Band. There is subtle background of horns; a short but effective guitar solo is dirty in the best sense of the word.

The snaking, minor-key “Sing About It” gets to the core idea of the blues: “If you get worried, what you ought to do is sing.” And while the Wood Brothers tend to keep their structures on the simple, straightforward level of the blues, there are small moments, like the nimble, flamenco-touched intro to “Sweet Maria,” to remind you of the more sophisticated underpinnings of this music.

Mention must be made of Buddy Miller, who has emerged as Americana’s go-to producer. The man is on a roll.

The Wood Brothers will play Dec. 8 at Belly Up.

Elvis Costello and the Roots, “Wise Up Ghost,” produced by Costello, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Steve Mandel (Blue Note)

The press notes accompanying “Wise Up Ghost” call it “one of the most surprising releases of 2013.” But after trying his hand at New Orleans and new wave, acoustic Americana, jazz, old-school country and more, can Elvis Costello still surprise us with his choice of collaborators or genre? It seemed almost a matter of time before he dipped into the sounds of Afro-America.

Costello picks his partner wisely on “Wise Up Ghost”; the Roots, led by drummer/producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, have been known to enjoy far-flung collaborations almost as much as Costello. While the backbeat here, a mix of old-school funk with some vintage hip-hop and acid jazz, is prominent, the bass thick and the sampled sounds attention-grabbing, Costello, as usual, bends the music in his direction. “Wise Up Ghost” is unmistakable as Costello’s songs, his phrasings, his acid wit on “Refuse to Be Saved” and “Stick Out Your Tongue.”

Only a fool would bet against Costello at this point, and Costello once again proves that his eclecticism isn’t just for show. “Wise Up Ghost” is distinctively dark, inventive and yet another side of music’s greatest adventurer.

Brett Dennen, “Smoke and Mirrors,” produced by Charlie Peacock (F-Stop)

On the propulsive “When We Were Young,” Brett Dennen offers a reminder not to lose hold of the things (especially the music) that make one’s youthful years seem to be wrapped in a golden glow.

To which a listener might respond: What’s with the past tense of that title? Dennen, at 34, is blessed with the red hair one associates with an 8-year-old. More to the musical point, on “Smoke and Mirrors,” his fifth album, he sounds as if he remains in the throes of childhood, in all the best ways. The first single, “Wild Child,” is a bubbly, easygoing tune, with Dennen fully identifying with the title. “Not Too Late” is optimistic in lyrics, in the catchy refrain “Hey now, baby don’t let me down” and in the George Harrison-esque slide-guitar parts. Mixed in is a baseline of maturity, but Dennen’s songs have always been too wise and calm for him to get confused with a teen pop star.

Looking for inspiration for “Smoke and Mirrors,” Dennen retreated to the Northern California mountains where he first started playing music. The return to his roots didn’t quite transform Dennen back into the kid he once was — his music is less wide-eyed and earnestly questioning than it was then. But in the Sierra Nevada, he does seem to have found himself in a way, as a confident, playful musician with an unashamed affection for poppy, feel-good songs — and his sense of youthfulness intact.

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