James and the Quiet
ooden Wand AKA James Jackson Toth AKA one of the underground’s more enigmatic figures, has done an admirable job keeping his self-made myth just that, colorfully obscured, a hybrid psych-seed spread amongst a number of imaginative projects leaving little space for question or evaluation. The man is a perpetual cosmic traveler, a shape-shifting everyman for everyone. Whether it’s conducting improv drone orchestras with the Vanishing Voice, barrelhouse blues from the earth’s core via the Sky High Band, or wah-wah fried traditionals with Omen Bones, Toth has a mask for all occasions. By frequently affixing titles like Jehovah and Hassara to his name, he’s even hinted that this constant multi-tasking was in the cards all along. As messenger for a higher power, recording myriad psychic translations is his duty. But when does the prolific spill over into the indulgent? Is there a hierarchy of importance within Toth’s expansive discography? Does anyone really care? Mr. Toth, we need a roadmap.
James and the Quiet, at the very least, provides a starting point or a sonic ground zero from which to explore the other, more decorated, avenues of Toth’s nomadic whimsy. On his first album for Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace he attempts to dabble in the “un-weird,” concentrating on simple folk songs, stripped naked and unadorned. It’s a set so striking and stark that everything that has come before it feels like practice, a scattershot foreword to a career that will, with this record, move him into rank with the Oldhams and Banharts of the world. And though Toth’s crude voice and austere acoustic guitar work is what’s magnified here, it’s the help that shape his musings into the elegiac or the elegant; companion Jessica Toth provides pinpoint harmonies, Steve Shelly adds shuffling percussion, and Lee Ranaldo (along with a cast of lesser-knowns) stitch on minimal amounts of electric sun burnt psych and maudlin piano.
Musically, though the album runs the gamut of folk tropes, it never sits as prosaic, instead throwing ingredients and casting spells towards a hot desert wind, resulting in near-hymns that equally resonate “from the hills of Moraine to the mountain Tabor.” Toth has already ingested a lifetime of this ilk, able to use a small army of hyphens to describe his imagery-crammed miscegenation of Marc Bolan’s early forays into pagan theology, Skip Spence’s hastily glued homespun ramblings, and Dylan’s syllable challenged storytelling (were it broadcast from the ruins of a failed commune). “We Must Also Love the Thieves” is a swaying cowpoke funeral march, “The Pusher” a cave-dwelling blues stomp, “Wired to the Sky,” goose-bump inducing spectral lullaby.
In essence James and the Quiet is an exorcism through songwriting, a meticulous spiritual cleansing. You’d think now is a better time than ever to shed some light on Toth the person, his innards laid out for public display, but James and the Quiet only fuels the mystery. In “Future Dream,” he boasts “my brain was the stuff of neurological lore.” Within his fictions, this is the closest he comes to transparency. As Wooden Wand, Toth has created a persona that exists between forgiving prophet and devil’s hangman. In the wrong hands, such grafting of grandiose tales to standard campfire accompaniment may be perceived as untreated acid casualty. Toth, however, is completely in control, emanating from a den that invites both demons and deities, confidently comfortable in his own cult of personality.