To call James Jackson Toth prolific is an understatement. A brief glance at his catalog shows a body of work that may seem daunting to anyone who doesn’t navigate Discogs with an Excel spreadsheet fired up. As such, his music has a restless nature. Best known by his Wooden Wand stage name, Toth is perhaps best known for being part of the freak-folk movement of the early 2000s. He’s cast his net far and wide, bringing in elements of country, free jazz, and Crazy Horse–era Neil Young into the mix. It’s not that surprising that Toth has decided to flip the script once again for his latest Wooden Wand full length, Clipper Ship (Three Lobed Recordings).
Clipper Ship is the first Wooden Wand release since 2014’s Farmer Corner, not necessarily a long time for most acts, but for someone who seemingly puts out records at the clip that a drunk sends out text messages, it seems like an eternity. One senses that Toth took the break as an opportunity to reset. The result is a fairly lean, fairly straightahead acoustic folk album augmented by instruments like oriental lute, melodica, harmonium, cello, tabla, and pedal steel. But despite the 13 guests listed in the credits, it sounds like the work of a three-person crew, at most, sitting in a room and working it out. The multiple contributions aren’t unnoticeable, but the arrangements are so tight and sparse that they don’t pull your focus away. It’s an interesting balance of the simple and musically intricate.
It’s been reported that Toth wrote the music first and then the words, flipping his creative process so that the music would shape how the lyrics were delivered. Who’s to say for sure if that is noticeable to the average listener, but there’s no denying that Toth seems to be in conversation with the music, allowing the instrumentation to serve as the chorus, with “Mallow T’Ward the River,” being the best example of that dynamic. Elsewhere, it’s more of a push and pull kind of thing, and there are also well-placed ambient sounds that seem to linger just out of earshot, even though they possess a full-bodied presence. Clipper Ship is the type of record you could listen to as an instrumental work, with many extended moments and an entire track, “Mood Indicia,” to support that approach.
One of the trickier elements of the albums is how Toth manages to dance between surreal and abstract imagery, while also delivering straightforward narratives. There’s an element of playfulness in his use of language and images, like in “Mexican Coke,” where he declares, “If you leave the door open so the flies can escape, you’re just inviting the rattlesnakes. We can always do more harm than good, our best intentions, misunderstood.” Like a perfect parfait, all of the elements are in their proper places. If Clipper Ship is the result of Toth letting Wooden Wand smell the roses, then let’s enjoy the leisurely pace.