The arrival this week of a second new Wooden Wand album prompted me into finally getting round to “Death Seat”, James Jackson Toth’s terrific return after what, for him, seems to have been a relatively quiet stretch.
In the time since the “Waiting In Vain” (“A sad slide with Ryko Records,” Michael Gira notes in the press biog; this one’s on Young God) album, I know Toth has figured in a band called Sabbath Assembly, recording an album of Process Church hymns (never heard this). Gira also mentions something about him “laying floors down in Murfreesboro, Tennessee”.
“Death Seat”, though, returns him to the kind of vivid songwriting that illuminated the tremendous “Second Attention” and “James And The Quiet”. I suspect I’ve probably mentioned Dylan before in relation to Toth’s work, and again here he has a great handle on stuff that a lot of lamer Dylan acolytes miss: the fervid visions and apocryphal jokes, the hallucinatory narratives like “Ms Mowse”. “The Mountain”, too, is richly in the tradition of mid-‘70s Dylan, with a nice line about living life in reverese, walking into rooms and saying goodbye and so on. Also, some stuff about kodiak bears.
“Servant To Blues”, meanwhile, is a kind of psychedelic death blues for gloaming times, where the freakout guitars of Toth’s early career (hooked up with the free psych outfit The Vanishing Voice) make a restrained reappearance. There’s an uncanny edge to the sound of a few of these songs, which relocates Toth in that continuum, an odd but effective mix with the Townes Van Zandt measures that he also favours.
I often think that, in spite of that classic songcraft, the impact of Toth’s records comes from the weight of music, sustained atmopshere and vibes, rather than from the individual songs. But as with almost all the Wooden Wand solo albums, concentrated listens start revealing a sequence of really memorable work: a droll and slightly menacing song from the point of view of a/the Creator, “I Made You”; a poignant and, again very funny, rumination on loneliness, relationships and the possibilities of parenthood called “Until Wrong Looks Right”; and “Hotel Bar”, one of Toth’s trademark sing-song dirges, imbued with a weird catchiness, which reminds me of his great “Portrait In The Clouds”.
Finally, there’s “Tiny Confessions”, which summons up both Townes Van Zandt and Skip Spence, the latter a neat reference point for Toth ever since the “Harem Of The Sundrum And The Witness Figg” album which signalled his shift from out jams to solo intensities. It’s a comparison that rears up again with regard to “Wither Thou Goest, Cretin”, a selection of home recordings being put out on vinyl by the Blackest Rainbow label.
The feel is predictably sketchier, less formally finished, but it’d be a mistake to imagine these songs are throwaway, or realistically any less potent than the stuff on “Death Seat”. Maybe the mood is a touch jauntier, a little less portentous: “Uncle Bill” is a hardboiled and cute story-song which involves the title character pulling girls through the interventions of “America, Poco and Bread”.
But there’s still nothing distractingly lo-fi about Toth’s work, and songs like “The Fly”, “Ragtop Ruby” and “The Ballad Of Squeaky Wheel” rank right up there. Not sure how limited/unlimited this one is, so it might be worth your while moving a bit faster for this one; it’s certainly worth it