I’ve always enjoyed James Jackson Toth’s stripped-down, dusky music most: It gives us the space to sink our teeth into his songwriting; his voice sounds best when it’s foreboding, bummed, soul-sick, burnt. Previously, he nailed this in the hissing, raw Harem of the Sundrum and the Witness Figg, a collection I reviewed, ecstatically, five years ago (“At the local record store, the ‘freak-folk’ section’s gridlocked. It’s a fucking epidemic”) ending with:
These lo-fi hymns succeed because they’re highly listenable. The collection’s direct, unadorned, honest, idiosyncratic. Like neo-folk’s most interesting players (Banhart, Ben Chasny, Joanna Newsom), Toth sounds more like his precursors than his contemporaries, and very much like himself. Timeless is a tough (even questionable) word to plunk down on the present, but all things considered (and considered carefully), Harem of the Sundrum and the Witness Figg should sound especially singular this time next year, even if Toth goes and gets himself a buzz cut.
Those songs did survive, for me at least. With Death Seat, I get that feeling again. As mentioned last year, I also enjoyed the demos and castaways he collected on Hard Knox. But this is his strongest “new” collection since Harem. Get a sense of the mood with “Ms Mowse.”
01 “Sleepwalking After Midnight”
02 “The Mountain”
03 “Servant To Blues”
05 “I Made You”
06 “Death Seat”
07 “I Wanna Make A Difference”
08 “Ms Mowse”
09 “Until Wrong Looks Right”
10 “Hotel Bar”
11 “The Arc”
12 “Tiny Confessions”
Death Seat is out 10/26 via Young God. It features tasteful contributions from Joey Kneiser and Bingham Barnes (Glossary), William Tyler (Lambchop, Silver Jews), Grasshopper, and members of Big Blood/Fire On Fire, etc. I enjoy the bios M. Gira writes for the artists on his label. Check out these lines taken from his text on Toth:
James Jackson Toth, AKA Wooden Wand is your fearless friend, the stumbling guy that goes out and gets himself into some incredibly fucked up situations but comes out shining and lives to tell you all about it, entertaining you safely and immensely. You should be grateful. His songs are beautiful — indisputably, both musically and lyrically, and they’ll give you joy if you listen to them. In my view, he’s a great American songwriter in full bloom. Most likely you’ll think that’s a preposterous claim, and I won’t blame you, but you’ll be totally, completely, and unforgivably wrong to think so. To me it’s obvious he’s animated with the same spirit that’s moved through Willie, Waylon, Merle, and Hank. Not to say he sounds like them, but his songs unfurl with a similar casual authority. There’s no space between who he is and the work he does — never without a guitar, and always writing or listening to/seeking out new music. He’s inhabited. If there were justice in this world, which there isn’t, he’d be on tour right now with Willie Nelson as an honored guest. He’s got that peculiar picaresque quality that Dylan had in his heyday, wherein the shambolic narrator undergoes various travails and epiphanies — harrowing, bleak and darkly comical — in the course of a narrative, then leaves you mystified, both smiling and sad. I laugh out loud when I hear some of the lines in these songs, they’re just so immediate and vivid. The pathos sometimes can leave you frankly drained, but the language and the singing is effortless and without loaded portent — it goes down smooth. Really, if Nashville were a place where one could peddle great songs anymore, James would be the king of the place. He’s a passionate singer and guitar player and inhabits the songs as he performs them with straightforward, unpretentious, and confident gravitas. [...] Last time I talked to James, he was laying floors down in Murfreesboro, TN. He is not a hipster, that is for sure, and God Bless him. The songs are literate, and there’s a painful irony in some of them, but the level of commitment and sweet passion is rare, and born of hard earned experience.