I've written about Memphis musician Charlie Wood many times in many different contexts, but it wasn't until I typed a song title, "I Just Want You Cause I Want You" (from his latest album), into my notes that I thought of what now seems an obvious comparison: Lyle Lovett.
That song is reminiscent of Lovett, as is Wood generally: He's a little bit like Lovett behind an organ, Wood's music is rooted in blues rather than country, and the generosity-to-wit ratio of his songwriting is a little more weighted toward the generosity side of the equation. But, like Lovett, Wood specializes in clever, jazz-tinged songs whose musicality is spread across most of the American roots-music spectrum.
Charlie Wood and the New Memphis Underground is Wood showcasing his new not-so-large band. The frontman writes and sings the songs while manning keyboards, bass, and drums. But he's joined in this setup by Joe Restivo on guitar, Billy Gibson on harmonica, Kirk Smothers on sax, Marc Franklin on trumpet, and Tamara Jones on backing vocals.
Back when Wood was playing Beale six or seven nights a week, he'd go a few years between albums. Now that he's scaled back his local live gigs, he's become downright prolific. I suppose this is bad news for Beale regulars but good news for record fans. But the formation of the New Memphis Underground seems predicated on a return to the stage, since this album could have easily been labeled as a Wood solo record with credited backup in the fine print.
New Memphis Underground opens with five straight originals before Wood & Co. start mixing in covers. "Let It Rip" is a rollicking opener where Wood puts a vocal-jazz spin on rave-up rockabilly while playing the barrelhouse blues. "Brand New Feelin'" is a fine contemporary blues without cliché. And the swinging keyboard-and-sax showoff tune, "Too Much Is Not Enough," is the album's strongest groove. I found myself involuntarily typing my notes to the beat.
From there, the album mixes originals and sharp covers. The originals include the club musician's anthem "Don't Let the Money Get Funny" and the bitter sociopolitical lament "You Don't Really Wanna Know." Among the covers are the Percy Mayfield blues ballad "Please Send Someone To Love," the Ray Charles slow-burner "Drown in My Own Tears," and a heated rendition of the Booker T. & the MGs instrumental "Boot-Leg."
Charlie Wood and the New Memphis Underground isn't Wood's best record, but it's mighty fine. As a calling card for a live-band show, it totally convinces.
— Chris Herrington