In the past few years, James Jackson Toth has released an endless stream of albums and CD-Rs as Wooden Wand. Although his arrival serendipitously coincided with the so-called “freak folk” renaissance, Toth’s brand of apocalyptic folk rock always seemed out-of-step with the other musicians lumped into that category. His enigmatic and deeply imagistic lyrics conjured Dylan at his most surreal, but they were sung with a measured cadence that more closely resembled Leonard Cohen. As those two influences would suggest, they were typically sapped of the child-like wonderment found in the music of freak-folk poster children like Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom. Instead, Toth’s songs seemed shrouded in foreboding and menace — even if it was little more than his voice and an acoustic guitar.
Toth has previously billed his work to Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice or to Wooden Wand and the Sky High Band, James & The Quiet might as well be credited to Wooden Wand and the Kim Gordon-less Sonic Youth. Released on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label, the album was produced by Lee Ranaldo and features both Ranaldo and Steve Shelley. Strangely, the influence of these all-star guests is barely noticeable: James & The Quiet, allegedly Toth’s last album under the Wooden Wand moniker, remains a solid and emblematic set. With no alternate tunings or screeching guitar squalls in sight, he never strays from a limited instrumental palette: acoustic-guitar strums, the occasional spike of wickedly heavy electric, and the sweetly lilting vocals of Vanishing Voice cohort Jessica Toth.
Like last year’s Second Attention, Toth’s lyrics are steeped in Biblical allusion and scrambled into head-scratching inversions. On “Thieves,” Toth preach-sings that “We must also love the thieves/ And we must also love the liars/ Because some truth can be found in these.” But a few songs later, on the title track, he complicates this turn-the-other-cheek philosophy of love, lamenting, “Oh, the shame, shame, shame of love.” Elsewhere, a palpable doom and sense of helpless captivity pervade even the most oblique lyrics: “dizzy honey bees” are trapped “in a bucket of tar”; an unidentified “they” wants your blood now; and, on a vision quest guided by a levitating witch, streets run with blood, faces are caked with gore, and Toth’s future children bleed from every pore. If it sounds like a season in hell, the lavish detail of Toth’s descriptions cast a spell of alluring decadence over the grim wasteland that his lyrics map.
That’s not to say that James & The Quiet is merely Toth playing herald of the coming end-times. “Spitting at the Cameras” is a succinct and gorgeous little ditty that showcases how well the Toths’ voices complement each other. “In a Bucket” playfully stitches together incongruous images and fragments of phrases (“sometimes getting dressed is the most important meal of the day”), creating a tangle of wordplay. In all, the album is fueled by instincts and subconscious associations, like a knee-jerk reaction to sickening times. After all, in a chaotic world that seldom makes sense, it’s fitting that our best musicians would reflect all that nonsense with work that is also a little confused and disoriented.