Make no bones about it: The catalog of James Jackson Toth — who uses the nom de plume Wooden Wand — is one of the most prolific, expansive and downright intimidating in all of contemporary music. It's a catalog that — over the course of 16 official albums and a small armada of limited-edition singles, CD-Rs and box sets — has ranged from the freaky to the straightforward, experimental to accessible, from rock to folk to country to just plain weird. It's a catalog as labyrinthine as it is overwhelming, even for longtime fans.
But for the listener who seeks adventure, who loves the art of songwriting and the craft of lyricism (that's you, dear reader!), the output of this Staten Island-bred, Kentucky-based songwriter and former Murfreesboro resident is an indisputable goldmine. Wooden Wand's newest album, Blood Oaths of the New Blues, is perhaps the best entry point yet to this prolific artist's sprawling body of work.
"2012 [was] interesting, because it's the first year since, I believe, 1996 that I haven't put out a record," says Toth. "Blood Oaths was supposed to come out in October and it got pushed back, so this was the first calendar year that there was no new Wooden Wand material. So take that, people that think I put out too much stuff! A whole year didn't have anything! And I've seen the results: It's been difficult for me, because songs have been piling up. I'm not itching to rush out a follow-up to Blood Oaths, but I am going to begin recording pretty soon."
Recorded at Ol Elegante Studios in Birmingham, Ala., with producer/engineer Les Nuby and a cast of Magic City multi-instrumentalists — Brad Davis, David Hickox, Janet Elizabeth Simpson of Delicate Cutters, and Through the Sparks' Jody Nelson — Blood Oaths is an eloquent exploration of ethereal instrumentation and corporeal expression. It's a fundamentally American record — complicated, strange and stridently individualistic — but it makes no concessions in regard to the bland constructs of Americana. This is not the mall folk of Mumford & Sons or the acoustic artifice of The Avett Brothers. It isn't some rose-colored remembrance of an America that never was. Blood Oaths is an unflinching and unapologetic examination by an artist who can't put a cork in his observational bottle.
"Songs, for me, are like a hard drive that fills up," says Toth. "And if you don't defrag and clean up the hard drives, things get out of control, and everything slows down. Making demos and making recordings allows me the free space to keep thinking about other things, like waking up in the morning and driving the car, acting like a normal person."
And while the sheer volume of songs may be overwhelming — for author and audience alike — with Blood Oaths of the New Blues Toth manages to synthesize and condense the strongest elements of the past 17 years of his work. Blood Oaths is the collision of brutal observations and psychedelic nonchalance, an album that walks through littered back alleys and burnt-out city blocks, floats through pastoral fields aflame with the unceasing uneasiness of everyday life. The characters on this album wander, but they aren't aimless. They're detached but not senseless. Songs like "Jhonn Balance," "Outsider Blues" and "No Debts" are masterfully crafted character sketches, full of the not-always-pleasant details of modern life.
"I tend to get very possessed," says Toth. "When I have a backlog of five or even 10 songs that haven't been recorded, even in demo form, it's all I can think about — it gets weird. It's unhealthy for me to sit on songs."
Thank God he's not sitting on these any longer.