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Wooden Wand - James and the Quiet

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Artist: Wooden Wand

Album: James and the Quiet

Label: Ecstatic Peace!

Review date: Jun. 29, 2007

This is James Toth’s coming out party. His quinceañera. And for it, he has prepared a toast befitting a Tennessee debutante:

    I read and approved the press release written by my good friends at Fanatic Promotion and wrote the update on the Myspace page myself, so I really can’t understand why some people still fail to see the difference between WWVV [his band, Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice] and what I do as a solo artist. Either certain people aren’t listening, or they simply don’t give a shit. Regrettably, I’m guessing it is the latter.

On this charge, Tosh is dead-on. It’s the latter. And, after listening to the monumentally portentous James and the Quiet, it’s hard to understand how anyone could give a shit. Whether or not that’s regrettable is another matter. Toth, shedding the band for a host of studio collaborators — most notably Lee Ranaldo, who also produced the record — has taken so-called new folk’s delusions of historical import (if only by ancestry) and cultural relevance (if only by accident) to an unprecedented level in the pursuit of his ‘vision.’

But wait, lest you be taken in by my own gripes — Toth has preempted this moment in the same manifesto, broadcast via Myspace and a network of message boards populated by veteran grousers and boosters:

    I sincerely hope this missive doesn’t do more harm than good, as it often appears that cynical journalists tend to ‘look for holes’ in such appeals. I imagine that every band that is fortunate enough to be written about anywhere has many of these same gripes, but choose not to rock the boat, as it were. But I don’t really give a shit about that. I guess when it comes right down to it, I’d rather be fact-checked (and accurately portrayed) than liked by total strangers.

Call me doubly cynical, but if I want holes — or, as the case may be, one giant gaping hole of a certain variety — I’ll spend another 40 minutes with James and the Quiet.

To be done with the obligatory description of style, form and biography: Toth plays the namesake in an ensemble called Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, which has put out a number of records ranging from decent to respectable in the last few years. While those records waver between noise, dirge and folk, on occasion pushing an envelope or two, the songs on James are characterized by rote stylistic gestures and faux-poetics in the mold of English psychedelic folk singers like Simon Finn, visionary lyricists such as William Blake, and whichever other dealers in apocalyptic metaphysical imagery Toth has dug through over the years.

From the casually elevated “We Must Also Love the Thieves” (“We most also love the liars / because truth can be found in this…We must turn the other cheek / and share what we have to eat” — seriously) to the sneering Biblical rants of the title track (“James and the quiet and the angels above” being the mantra), Toth’s lyrics veer dangerously toward doomsaying, soothsaying and general bullshitting. The songs appear as a herd of slowly passing cows, each one almost indistinguishable from the next, heavy beasts mooing stupidly as they leave the road to the slaughterhouse covered with feces. They inevitably contain a basic chord progression strummed in an unremarkable manner.

This feels a lot like the apotheosis of a genre — let’s call it ahistorical history music. In other words, a form mimicked or appropriated, denied the specific circumstances that originally granted it some enduring value; a fetishized version of history masquerading as artistic expression. The self-aggrandizing jig the young white man dances on the grave of Mississippi John Hurt.

The effect of this context-specific music taken far outside of its rightful context is maddening at worst, tiresome at best. I’m reminded of George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, which so articulately (if nostalgically) lamented our culture’s increasing loss of historical mooring and the resultant infantilization of society. To wantonly chew at the weeds of history, regurgitating wherever one sees fit and calling the spittle one’s own art, is to deny that history its rightful place, to revert to the mindset of a child. But beyond that observation it’s hard to find a reason to give a shit. Back to fact-checking.

By Alexander Provan

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