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James & the Quiet

Wooden Wand

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Album Review

James and the Quiet is the mirror image of James Toth's (aka Wooden Wand) Harem of the Sundrum & the Witness Figg in 2005. The latter recording was an uncomfortable collection of twisted elliptical songwriter fare that left the bleached out wah wah and free folk rhythmic and keyboard shambolics of the WW and the Vanishing Voice collective recordings at bay. James and the Quiet is a very different animal. Produced by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo (who appears here, as does SY's drummer Steve Shelley), both sound and songs are more deliberately crafted. It's clear from the minor-key opening of "The Pushers" that quickly gives way to electric guitars, a behind the beat drum kit and apocalyptic lyrics — with Jessica Toth balancing out his reedy baritone with her fluttering alto on duet vocals: "We don't need this cathedral/We don't need poison people/We don't need not a morsel/from outside this temple/It ain't s**t that I shovel/I am quite on the level/And beneath broken egos/We'll laugh at the devil..." This is the Bob Dylan of "Masters of War" calling from the ether, and giving license to a full blown rock band. Elsewhere, it is quieter, with elliptical imagery born of excessive verbiage blending seamlessly with shimmering guitars, organ, piano and minimal percussion slip-and-slide through the mix with Toth's voice right up front. He opens "In a Bucket" with the words: "Don't worry ma/It's just a bloodshot honey drop/We dream we eat our young, and we wait to eat our own/The cold wind and the ice/There was spice in the beans and the rice/We were busy honeybees in a bucket of tar/I saw a nihilist heart/I saw a nihilist, I saw the love hid within them/I could by the care with which he chose his stones/And the sorority girls came and they snuck photos of all the bikers..." Um, yeah. At least he knows what he means.

But there's some humor here too: "...Sometimes getting dressed/is the most important meal of the day..." the electric solos rudimentary and dirty and it's all a morality tale from the downside of slacker heaven. What year is this? There are some utterly beautiful tunes here, though, such as "We Must Also Love the Thieves," a cough syrup waltz that blends Neil Young's Harvest Moon acoustic ethos, Allen Ginsberg's sense of justice and Howe Gelb's messy amalgam of instrumentation and timing. They are the simplest, most direct and most beautiful lyrics on the record, done in a repetitive melody line that foreshadows the utterly beautiful and moving "The Invisible Children." Its wrapped in Toth's trademark, resurrected hippie allegory, but the melody and blend of acoustic and electric string instruments finds its meandering way into an actual story. Jessica's staggered backing vocal adds both authority and a larger sense of intimacy to the proceeding. Ultimately, James and the Quiet leaves the chaotic Wooden Wand playfulness behind in favor of something approaching "seriousness." But who's to say that what were perceived as Toth's previous acid visions weren't as serious and tender as the music found here? Presented in this way, it's impossible not to rely on the lyrics and the musical coherence as an attempt and a hunkering down into the more refined "craft" of songwriting. James and the Quiet isn't quite there, but it's a small and compelling listen, one that will no doubt bear repeated playing. It'll be interesting to see what Toth— who has retired the Wooden Wand moniker with this set — will come up with next.


Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Wooden Wand is the alter ego of singer and multi-instrumentalist James Jackson Toth, who alters the band name from one project to the next. Most often working in collaboration with the free improv experimentalists the Vanishing Voice, Wooden Wand mixes folk, jazz, psychedelic, and noise rock influences into a singular blend that exemplifies the scene alternately dubbed alt-folk, freak folk, or the New Weird America. Along with a surfeit of obscure and...
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James & the Quiet, Wooden Wand
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