Preview: Wooden Wand at Double Happiness

By Joel Oliphint
From the March 7, 2013 edition

With dozens of genre-spanning releases under various monikers and with different collaborators in the last 10 years, it can be tough to know where to start with the music of songwriter James Jackson Toth, who most often records as Wooden Wand. Fortunately, new album Blood Oaths of the New Blues is a perfect jumping-off point.

“It feels like a culmination,” Toth said over the phone last month. “Blood Oaths touches on everything that I do. There’s enough songcraft, but I think it works even if you don’t give a shit about lyrics — whereas in the past you had to go in understanding that it was a lyric-focused record. There’s a lot more to grab onto if you’re just looking to chill out, have a drink and commune with it.”

That communal, experiential aspect of music is vital to Toth.

“When I buy a new record,” he said, “I like to sit on the couch and experience the record from start to finish and without too many distractions. The music I like most requires a certain level of attention that I’m not sure people give records anymore. Listening to Blood Oaths while doing other things is sort of like watching a 3-D movie without the glasses.”

For Blood Oaths, Toth recruited the same players who played on 2011’s Briarwood, a rock record with a more intentionally Stones-y vibe than Wooden Wand’s avant-folk releases. The band also ventured back to the same studio near Birmingham, Alabama, but the direction of the Blood Oaths sessions were dictated by chance.

On the first day of recording, for instance, drummer Brad Davis happened to bring along a harmonium. “Before you knew it, the harmonium was on half the songs,” Toth said.

The harmonium’s drone makes for a record you slowly sink into rather than perk up for. Take the first track, “No Bed for Beatle Wand/Days This Long.” It sets the tone instrumentally for more than three minutes before Toth’s slack singing carries the song for another five, and then fades into the “Days This Long” section. Add that up and it makes for an almost 12-minute opening song — a clever way to throw down the gauntlet. It challenges listeners to either commune or take a hike.

Each sound on Blood Oaths is quite purposeful — even the ones that don’t appear until the third or fourth listen. Metal was Toth’s first love, and some of that heavy-metal residue often finds its way into Wooden Wand albums. Harking back to records that gave Tipper Gore fits, Toth tucked backmasked sounds and subliminal messages into the folds of Blood Oaths.

“I wanted to make the kind of record that used to creep me out when I was little,” Toth said. “If you’re in the right state of mind, whether you’re stoned or whatever, you start hearing things that aren’t there. Or they are there, and it’s subliminal.”

While Toth often tours as a solo musician, Thursday’s show at Double Happiness will thankfully feature the full Wooden Wand band. It’s hard to imagine these new songs without that harmonium.

“We make our best impression as a full band,” Toth said.