The idea that most emerged, at least from a marketing standpoint, from the 2007 Wooden Wand swan song James and the Quiet, was the idea that the album was a departure, an intentionally “un-weird” release by a musician (James Jackson Toth) known for sounding weirder than traditional “indie” music. That Toth has acquired cult status with self-released CD-Rs and micro-label attachment is a testament to his imaginative weirdness and dedication. Toth may have stepped away from his lo-fi dirtiness, but his weirdness and dedication continue. “Un-weird” misdirects, and doesn’t really mean anything. Although both Waiting in Vain and James in Quiet stop short of achieving the depth and texture of his Sky High Band collaboration, Second Attention, they do maintain a cleaned-up dramatic creepiness (of the Bonnie “Prince” Billy variety).
Like those on previous albums, the songs on Waiting in Vain tell stories or paint character portraits, sometimes with epic themes and sometimes in first person. To listen to Toth is to realize his voice is a mixture of performance and genuine heartfelt expression. Album standout “Look in on Me” is a sinner’s love song sung both repentant and desperate by a Jim Ford type. “Poison Oak, darling, I know where you’ve been/ Marking off boxes on your checklist of sin,” begins “Poison Oak,” the story of a good-hearted woman beaten down by her lifestyle and choices. “The Banquet Styx” is (unfortunately) not a song about a rigatoni dinner with Styx playing live, but about life and death, sung from in between with images of “fluorescent spiders and hot pokers in the cider.” Toth revisits the classic good and evil ideologies, but his characters and voices are more easily envisioned than before.
There is nothing directly quirky about Toth, and that is perhaps why his new material doesn’t find a label easily in contemporary music. His hazy folk-driven Wooden Wand output could be thrown into a boiling-over pot called freak-folk, but the new material is polished and a little daunting. This is perhaps its main flaw. To some extent, it’s the anti-highbrow drug-induced music of a blue-collar country-western singer but leans toward literary competence. At times he has the poetic skill of D. Berman but does not place the lyrics in the fore among spoon-fed hooks. Despite his skill, Toth’s new lack of experimentation seems like a loss, and an example of why lo-fi, low-budget, improvisation or experimentation can sometimes accomplish more than polished musicianship. “Beulah the Good” hits its stride as a driving country gem, but its lyrics seem to hold it back.
At times words pile up without much affect and the well-arranged music is a bit more polished and clean than expected, but Waiting in Vain still offers strangeness and beauty. The catchy “My Paint” tells of an injured horse in a sling, while droning “The Dome” comes closest to the obscure strung-out messiness of early days but benefits from a finer touch in the studio. The Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice piece “Phases in Meticulous Orbit,” a set of songs that starts in fuzzy chaos to find their rhythm only to drift away again, may hopefully parallel Toth’s career. Despite his gift for storytelling and country dirtiness, it doesn’t appear that Toth has quite found a new rhythm, but what he has found is getting closer to something entirely his own.