With stoner riffs and fearful visions supplanting his usual psych-folk ruminations, James Jackson Toth ain’t fucking around this time…
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Though they were released during a two-year span, the last three albums from Wooden Wand aren’t all that similar. 2011’s Briarwood is a record of striding Southern rock with songs that cling to bright spots — “like how your money don’t get ruined when it gets washed in the pockets of your jeans” — while life goes to shit. January’s Blood Oaths of the New Blues is filled with haunting psych-folk delicacies where wandering electric riffs underpin confessions from characters who have already given up. Released just 10 months later, Wooden Wand & the World War IV occupies even more existential territory, a place where stoner riffs conjure fearful visions as our narrator struggles for a silver lining.
Such diversity is Wooden Wand’s status quo. For more than a decade, the project’s only constant has been James Jackson Toth. The New York native now living in Lexington, KY, has used the name as an outlet for his wandering creations, working with a host of talented collaborators. He’s delivered folk delicacies and smoldering stunners, noisy experiments and cassette-tape confessions, usually with new backers on each release. But his last three albums feature the same band, a crew based in Birmingham, Ala., that he’s come to rely on. It’s a big change, one that’s spurred some of his strongest material to date.
“We share a lot of the same reference points,” Toth says of his backers, recently dubbed the World War IV. One of them came up with the name, though he can’t remember who it was. “They’re really great at adapting to any situation. We made this relatively fun rock ‘n’ roll record. And then we made this real dark, sleepy, stone-y record. And now we’ve made this almost punk, psych record. I think it’s pretty remarkable that it’s the work of the same five or six people. At this stage in my career, they’ve sort of become my Crazy Horse. I’ll probably do records without them, but it’s a band that’s really easy to keep going back to.”
Toth connected with them by chance. Friends with Alabama singer Duquette Johnston, he accepted an offer to come down and record a 7-inch where Duquette’s band would back both of them. The chemistry was immediate, and though the group soon parted with Johnston, Toth made good on his promise to return and record an LP.
“I kept threatening that I was going to come back and make a record,” he chuckles. “They didn’t know me well enough to know that I don’t bluff about stuff like that.”
Briarwood, their first full-length, is the one of Wooden Wand’s most straightforward offerings. Every few years, Toth gets the itch to just make a rock record, but the album was also spurred by the group’s relative unfamiliarity with one another. At that point, the players didn’t know Toth very well, and their playing is proficient but polite. Jody Nelson’s guitars gird Toth’s Dixieland brimstone with gritty minimalism, riding blues progressions that do only what’s necessary. The bass and drums — courtesy of David Hickox and Brad Davis, respectively — follow at a steady amble, as pedal steel and organ provide tasteful garnish.
It’s not surprising, but it is a damn fine rock record, and it’s loaded with some of Toth’s most plain-spoken poetry. “Beth, when we met, you looked like the kind of girl that gets won in a drag race,” he grins on “Winter in Kentucky,” “guess all them Bloody Mary brunches blurred the edges on you.” It’s one of many lines here that elicits a smile followed quickly by a grimace. Every joke points to a grim reality, fitting given the record’s no-nonsense sound.
“When I went in there, I just brought songs, and I let the band figure out how we were going to create,” Toth recalls. “We were still pretty polite with each other on that record because we didn’t know each other very well, so I think a lot of that was them taking direction. The following two records were a much more holistic and collective sort of deal.”
Following Briarwood’s release, Wooden Wand hit the road with its new line-up, something the players were all ready to do — “The average age of the band members is probably about 36,” Toth laughs, “so clearly, if we weren’t willing to do this, good sense would have stopped us a long time ago.” Naturally, the touring nurtured chemistry. By the time they entered the studio for Blood Oaths, Toth’s backers were ready to let their personalities show, making for a record that’s as collaborative as it is immersive.
The sprawl of opener “No Bed for Beatie Wand / Days This Long” was spurred by Toth and Davis’ shared love of the harmonium. The instrument wanders gracefully across the song’s first few minutes, countered by a dirge-ish blues riff, the perfect setup for lines like “Honor thy killer” and “Those chapfallen beauties, they’re all small beer and fictional pictures of pride.” Elsewhere, the darkness is more insistent. “Southern Colorado Song” prickles and sparks. Serrated riffs gnaw at skeletal rhythms like zombies cleaving rotten meat from weakened bone. “Sometimes nowhere seems the only place to go,” Toth moans, setting up a road-weary tale that won’t end well: “And if it weren’t for that guardrail, we’d be laughing at your mound/ We were dead-set on getting away somehow.” It’s bleaker than Briarwood and more richly appointed — the creation of a band, not just a singer aided by session players.
“That was such a fun record to make because for the first time in a long time, the demos were pretty skeletal,” Toth offers. “They were like guitar and vocals and really very little else. The fact that there’s harmoniums and back-masking and all this other crazy shit on that record is really just a result of us being in the studio.”
Attributed to both Toth and his band, the new, self-titled album takes their collaboration even further. When the Alabama crew presented him with a selection of drifting stoner riffs, he broke from his typical procedure of writing on his own, crafting melodies and words that could inhabit those spectral trances.
“Directions to Debbie Harry’s House” splits the difference between muscular choogle and metallic sludge, like Harvey Milk if they were covering Neil Young. Better still is “I Hate the Nightlife,” an impressionistic roadtrip anthem that’s somehow both relatable and menacing. Sputtering strums echo through layers of grimy fuzz, enhancing the tension as Toth pictures himself on a drive he’s made several times, but always tired and hungover. This time, he’s not, and he tries to ignore bad omens — closed rest stops and cracks in the windshield — without avail: “This drive, I’m alert and wide awake,” he cries, his current safety a reminder of mortality’s creeping progress.
Toth has a new album ready for next year, a more traditional offering that includes help from frequent collaborators William Tyler and Doc Feldman, among others. He knows he’ll return to the World War IV, but there are some battles he must fight with other forces.
“I’m really happy with it, but it’s not a Birmingham record,” he says. “Despite how versatile they are, they are sort of distinct. Not that they couldn’t have pulled it off, but maybe they wouldn’t have wanted to pull it off. I’m sure those guys could have handled it, but I don’t think they would have been as enthused about it. There are things that those guys would be more than willing to help me with, but I don’t want their help. I want them to be as involved as I am.”
Top photo credit: Leah Hutchinson Toth. (Ed. note: this image may or may not be out of date; we have no earthly idea. Meanwhile, Wooden Wand has a handful of dates this week, listed below.)
Nov. 7 Bottletree Cafe Birmingham, AL
Nov. 8 The Stone Fox Nashville, TN
Nov. 9 Astro Black Louisville, KY