The world of James Jackson Toth is full of southern-tinged good and evil. The inhabitants deal with down-and-out quotidian struggles, personal discovery, as well as otherworldly creatures. The onetime helmsman of the experimental psych outfit Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice has slowly cultivated his own more traditional song style that concerns, most-heavily, a blend of literary bleakness and spiritual duality. His work has become a blend of folk, country-western, and whatever may interest him at the time. Toth sings as a descendent of Gordon Gano and Merle Haggard. He’s a more creative and liberal Jim White.
From his solo lo-fi masterpiece Harem of the Sundrum and the Witness Figg, to the Bible themed classic Sky High Band outing Second Attention, Toth has become prolific both by himself and with others, with a surprisingly high batting average. Hard Knox showcases the songs that were lost along the way, as well as Toth’s aptness as a uniquely American singer-songwriter. The era of home recording combined with Toth’s knack for songwriting have produced a healthy sub-catalog of songs that were not pushed through a production line, but are released both sounding good and closest to original intent. Truth is, when Toth’s work does go through the traditional channels of production studios and guest artists like Nels Cline (such as his solo debut on Ryko, Waiting in Vain, and to a lesser extent his last album as Wooden Wand James and the Quiet), it is more likely to suffer. His home-recorded, lower-fi output better contains Toth’s off-kilter voice and wandering, at times distortion-ridden guitar. Sincerity is lost when his songs are polished up nicely. Toth’s songs are dramatic enough without putting on a mask.
Often, B-side and demo collections are albums of filler, justly left off of full-lengths, but of some interest to devoted fans. Hard Knox is a coherent album that just happens to be a collection of songs that didn’t fit on his other proper efforts. It offers a cross section of Wand’s different stylings. Hymn-like “Blamelessness” could have been left off Second Attention, and sums up Toth’s approach to so many songs. A common half-hearted devoutness is expressed as both Toth and Jexie Lynn sing in choral fashion “Ohhhh-Man, Ohhhh-Man” rather than “Amen.” They sound like a duo at a southern revival for those who only pray to God in hard times, and understand enough faith to be blissful. Quaint and poetic “Saturday Delivery” and apocalyptic “Arriving” may have been left off Hours of the Horizon. Toth’s roots of psychedelic meanderings are here too. In the dark “Eyes” Toth sings, “Every night/ since my eyes have been gone / I’ve been sleepin’ / with the TV on,” before the song progresses to murkiness and distortion filled waves of guitar.
However, because a quality of Toth’s is variety, there are new sounds and approaches as well. Jexie Lynn’s (Satya Sai) role as a member of Wand as both a back up vocalist and rare lead are best exemplified on this album. Unfortunately her endearingly naïve “All These Generous Men,” and back-up talents on the album’s best, “Trails,” have not been heard before a demos collection. Even more unfortunate is the possibility that, due to a separation, these may be the last such examples of the harmonies the two can create.
As Toth admits, these songs suffer at times from nonsensical lyrics that are “syllabic placeholders.” Just as these songs benefit from quick production, they suffer. On this album they work because the songs are sung with sincerity and make enough sense to be no worse than those of songs on Toth’s other albums. Often thrown in with the freak-folks, Toth has been able to point out the absurdity of such a movement (or category), and has carved himself a spot all his own among a talented group of musicians. As an album of passed by songs, Hard Knox makes a case for Toth’s ability as a songwriter and as a unique voice.