The Wood Brothers
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Kingdom In My Mind
“Everyone has these little kingdoms in their minds,” says Chris Wood, “and the songs on this album all explore the ways we find peace in them. They look at how 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.”
That balance of darkness and light is at the heart of Kingdom In My Mind, The Wood Brothers’ seventh studio release and their most spontaneous and experimental collection yet. Recorded over a series of freewheeling, improvised sessions, the record is a reckoning with circumstance, mortality, and human nature, one that finds strength in accepting what lies beyond our control. Thoughtfully honing in on the bittersweet beauty that underlies our doubt and pain, the songs grapple with the power of our external surroundings to shape our internal worlds (and vice versa) through vivid character studies and unflinching self-examination. The lyrics dig deep here, but the arrangements always manage to remain buoyant, drawing from across a broad sonic spectrum to create a transportive, effervescent listening experience that’s indicative of the trio’s unique place in the modern musical landscape.
“My brother came to this band from the blues and gospel world, and my history was all over the map with jazz and R&B,” says Chris Wood, who first rose to fame with the pioneering trio Medeski Martin & Wood. “The idea for this group has always been to marry our backgrounds, to imagine what might happen if Robert Johnson and Charles Mingus had started a band.”
Kingdom In My Mind follows The Wood Brothers’ most recent studio release, 2018’s One Drop Of Truth, which hit #1 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart and garnered the band their first GRAMMY Award-nomination for Best Americana Album. NPR praised the record’s “unexpected changes and kaleidoscopic array of influences,” while Uncut hailed its “virtuosic performances and subtly evocative lyrics,” and Blurt proclaimed it “a career-defining album.” Tracks from the record have racked up roughly 8 million streams on Spotify alone, and the band took the album on the road for extensive tour dates in the US and Europe, including their first-ever headline performance at Red Rocks, two nights at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore (captured on their 2019 release, Live At The Fillmore), and festival appearances everywhere from Bonnaroo to XPoNential.
On past records, the band -- brothers Oliver and Chris Wood, and Jano Rix -- would often write a large batch of songs and then deliberately capture them all at once, but when it came to making Kingdom In My Mind, The Wood Brothers began recording without even realizing it. At the time, the trio thought they were simply breaking in their new Nashville recording studio/rehearsal space, laying down a series of extended instrumental jam sessions with engineer Brook Sutton as a way to learn the lay of the land. Some rooms, they found, were spacious with natural reverb, others were tight and dry; some recording setups required a gentle touch, others encouraged blistering energy.
“We weren’t performing songs,” explains Oliver. “We were just improvising and letting the music dictate everything. Normally when you’re 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.”
There was something undeniably alive and uninhibited about those performances, and after listening back, the band realized they’d never be able to recreate such spontaneous magic. So, like a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble, Chris took the band’s sprawling improvisations and carefully chiseled out verses and choruses and bridges and solos until distinctive songs began to take shape, songs that reflected influences and elements of the band (like Jano’s smoldering piano work and Chris’s affinity for Latin and African music) that had never shone through in quite the same way before. From there, the brothers divvied up the material that spoke to them most, penning lyrics both separately and together as they pondered what it takes to know contentment in our chaotic and confusing world.
The jaunty “Little Bit Sweet,” which was born from the band’s very first session, learns to appreciate the ups and downs in the circle of life, while the soulful “Cry Over Nothing” and hypnotic “Little Blue” playfully meditate on ego and perspective, and the funky “Little Bit Broken” celebrates the imperfections that make us human. Tracks like the bluesy “A Dream’s A Dream” and hypnotic “Don’t Think About My Death,” meanwhile, grapple with separating truth from fiction, ultimately coming to terms with the fact that our brains will always find new ways to blur those lines. Though the album advocates for acceptance, it’s not a passive brand the brothers sing about, but rather one rooted in strength and empowerment. To understand exactly what that means, look no further than album opener “Alabaster,” which paints a deeply empathetic portrait of a woman who’s broken free from the shackles of her old life and started over fresh.
“At the same time we were making this album, we were looking for some sort of philanthropic organization we could support with our music and in a bit of synchronicity, we came across this great group called Thistle Farms, which was based just down the street from our studio,” says Oliver. “Their goal is to help women who have been victims of sex trafficking or prostitution or addiction to get off the street and into safe housing where they can participate in therapy and job training. The work they were doing was so inspiring and it felt like such a fit with the kind of album we were writing that we teamed up with them to donate a portion of ticket sales from all our shows. It’s our way of using what we’ve got to do whatever good we can in the world.”
More than anything, it’s that mindset, that recognition that we’ve all been dealt our own particular hand of cards and life is in the way we play them, that defines Kingdom In My Mind. As Oliver sings on the captivating “Satisfied,” which finds its narrator wondering about the glories of the afterlife before ultimately deciding to make the most of his time on Earth, “I’ve got nothing left to be afraid of / Because I will be satisfied.” With an album this remarkable, The Wood Brothers have plenty to be satisfied about.
The latest full-length from Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers emerged from a long-awaited revelation on the part of the Tennessee-bred singer/songwriter. “With this record, it finally became clear why I have this dream of making music,” June says of her third album for Fantasy Records. “It’s not for earthly reasons of wanting to be awarded or to win anybody’s love—it’s because dreaming keeps me inquisitive and keeps me on that path of learning what I have to share with the world. I think when we allow ourselves to dream like we did when we were kids, it ignites the light that we all have within us, and helps us to have a sort of magic about the way we live.”
The follow-up to her widely adored The Order of Time—a 2017 effort that earned the admiration of Bob Dylan and landed on best-of-the-year lists from the likes of Rolling Stone and the New York Times— The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers is a potent catalyst for that kind of magic. With her spellbinding vocals and infectious sense of wonder, June gently eases the listener into a far more charmed state of mind, one that quickly restores a powerful feeling of joyful possibility.
Produced by June and Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys, John Legend), The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers achieves that transcendent effect thanks in no small part to the splendor of its sound, an exquisitely composed tapestry of folk, soul, gospel, country, blues, psychedelia, and time-bending symphonic pop. In bringing the album to life, June and Splash stayed true to the spirit of wide-eyed exploration by working with an eclectic lineup of esteemed musicians, absorbing themselves in a prolonged period of free-flowing experimentation and playing with a magnificently vast palette of instruments (flute and banjo, mbira and Mellotron, saxophone and synth, to name just a few). The result is a selection of songs both ornate and elegant, each moment crafted with a profound awareness of what’s most essential in creating enduring beauty.
Though the shapeshifting textures of The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers prove infinitely mesmerizing, the album’s most enchanting element is June’s vocal presence, the extraordinary and often breathtaking sound of someone pouring her whole heart into every note. At turns ethereal and gritty, ferocious and fragile, June’s vocals possess a certain transformative quality, instantly melting away the chaos of the everyday and leaving only the immutable glow of absolute truth.
Infusing each line of The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers with her warmly delivered insight, June narrates the long and precarious journey toward realizing a dream. “Any dream is going to be work, and you have to be willing to put in that time and effort to go the long path,” she says. “There’s a lot of failing and rising and twists and turns, but dreaming itself can also be a strengthening force that we can all tap into.” One of many songs graced with a lavish string arrangement from Lester Snell (Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Solomon Burke), “Stay” opens the album with a piano-laced rhapsody urging listeners to carve out “their own personal space to dream freely,” as June puts it. Next, on “You and I,” June speaks to the ineffable joy of letting others into your inner world, the track’s effervescence intensified by the hypnotic rhythms of percussionist Humberto Ibarra.
After the luminous clarity of “Colors” and softly soaring urgency of “Stardust Scattering” (a song partly inspired by the surrealist poetry of Sun Ra), The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers presents an African proverb read by legendary Stax singer Carla Thomas (aka “The Queen of Memphis Soul”). From there, Thomas lends her backing vocals to the album’s showstopping centerpiece “Call Me a Fool,” a gorgeous piece of throwback R&B fueled by smoldering horns and a particularly soul-stirring performance from June. “It’s very scary to have a dream,” says June in revealing the song’s message. “Everybody in your life will tell you that you’re crazy and it’s never going to work out, but you’ve got to let the world call you a fool and just go for it anyway.”
Although The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers slips into a heavy-hearted mood on the stark and sorrowful “Fallin,” June’s irrepressible intensity returns on the radiant “Smile.” “As a Black woman, a song like ‘Smile’ makes me think about everything my race has gone through, and how positivity can be its own form of protest,” June points out. “It’s saying, ‘We are oppressed, we have so much against us—but the one thing you’re not gonna take from me is my smile.’” One of the album’s most beautifully untethered moments, the trance-like “Within You” shares what June calls a “mantra for rejuvenation,” while “Two Roads” channels a dreamy determination in its lilting pedal-steel tones. A song of sweetly articulated triumph, “Why the Bright Stars Glow” then leads into the album’s glorious finale: the slow-burning “Home Inside,” a prayerful invocation whose lyrics are threaded with June’s tenderhearted wisdom (e.g., “Earth is a school/To shine is why you came”).
At several points throughout The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, June offers up what she refers to as “reflective meditation moments”: atmospheric interludes meant to lull the listener into a state of lucid serenity (the album’s final track, for instance, features recordings of mockingbirds singing outside June’s window during her time spent quarantining in Tennessee). “I know that when I’m ready to give up on something on the dreamer’s path, taking even 30 seconds to just focus on my breath can completely shift my energy and help me to keep going,” she notes. To that end, the subtitle to The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers alludes to the so- called prescriptions June created to accompany each song on the album, a carefully curated collection of elixirs, contemplation questions, and daily practices assembled to help the listener along on their own dreamer’s journey.
In the making of The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, June added an element of ritual to every recording session, including adorning the studio floor with mandalas made from fresh-picked flowers (a rite inspired by 19th-century author Clara Lucas Balfour’s assertion that flowers are undoubtedly “the stars of the earth”). Working at Fresh Young Minds in Los Angeles and Hit Factory Criteria in Miami—with each session serendipitously transpiring under a full moon—June found an ideal collaborator in Splash, who shares her tendency toward childlike adventuring in the artistic process. “For this album I wanted to see how we could bring some modern elements into that band-in-the-room approach I’ve taken with my records in the past,” says June, who first broke through with 2013’s critically acclaimed Pushin’ Against A Stone. “Anytime you create, you should always be exploring and changing and trying things you’ve never done before.” With their reference points ranging from the freewheeling Afrobeat of Fela Kuti to the grandiose string arrangements of longtime David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, June and Splash introduced otherworldly effects and beats into the album’s elaborate orchestration, soon arriving at a sound that’s entirely singular and endlessly surprising.
In creating such a transportive body of work, June ultimately provides an utterly immersive listening experience with The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, one that serves as a much-needed respite from the outside world. “I see these songs almost like matches for people to strike when they need to reignite that inner light and keep going when things feel dark,” says June. “I hope it helps them to feel empowered, to realize their strength and their beauty and all the gifts they have to give. And I hope it also helps people to recognize the light in everyone around them, so that we can all connect with each other in a kinder and gentler and more loving way.”
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