Wooden Smoke seems to be a turning point for Mike Keneally. One of the most immediately identifiable changes is the preponderance of acoustic guitar on this album. Don't worry, there's still plenty of electric playing, but the acoustic guitar gives the album a sound and texture quite different from other Keneally releases. Additionally, after five proper studio albums and a double-disc live set, Wooden Smoke has a certain sense of (ahem) maturity that was somehow missing on his other recordings. Not to say the other albums come off as immature, but this one seems more at ease. The album is no less eclectic than previous efforts, but it is less manic. Keneally seems more confident as a composer and musician, and this has brought a newfound subtlety to his work. There are a number of parallels between Wooden Smoke and albums like Surf's Up and Holland by the Beach Boys. The most obvious (and least important) would be Keneally's knack for vocal harmonies: rich and beautiful, a Beach Boys trademark. Then there's the "maturity" factor: the difference between Wooden Smoke and Keneally's prior efforts is comparable to the difference between "Long Promised Road" or "'Til I Die" and "California Girls" or "Help Me Rhonda." The musical elements are all still in place, but the overall feeling is very different. The strongest connection is the general tone of the album, and extremely close attention to sonic detail -- details that only reveal themselves with attentive listening. The clincher is that Mike told me himself (after I posed the question) that specifically "'2001' is heavily influenced by 'Sail On Sailor' and several of Carl Wilson's pieces -- 'Trader,' 'Long Promised Road,' etc. I really love that music." This is not meant to imply that Wooden Smoke is a tribute to the Beach Boys, or even that it sounds like the Beach Boys. Echoes of his other influences can also be heard (XTC, Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren), but if you've heard Mike Keneally before, there's no mistaking that this music could be made by anyone else. Mike Keneally is one of the most talented and idiosyncratic musicians out there. However, "idiosyncratic" does not necessarily mean difficult or unapproachable. Wooden Smoke is a lush, beautiful recording that could probably succeed on adult alternative radio, if given half a chance. (Don't hold your breath.) Highly recommended.
AllMusic Review by Sean Westergaard