Perhaps there has been no more steady hand guiding Raven Sings the Blues than the presence of James Toth’s Wooden Wand. Since the site began in 2006, there have been myriad releases from Toth and as I’ve changed, so has the music of Wooden Wand blossomed from noise experiments with The Vanishing Voice, to psych-folk’s crowning glory and on into a pure distillation of Americana that rings far from the hollow brand of weekend alt-country that so many Brooklyn pickers would adopt fecklessly over the years. No, Toth has always been independent music’s poet laureate, whether he’s got the onion skin to prove it or not, we all know its true.
On Clipper Ship, his first album in three years (a relative dearth in terms of Toth’s output), he crafts an album that puts the musical heft ahead of the lyrical focus. A groundswell of his fellow craftsmen have found their way to the studio for this dragging the net from Glenn Kotche (On Fillmore, Wilco) and Jim Becker (Califone, Iron & Wine) to Zak Riles (Watter, Grails) and sought after sidemen Luke Schneider (Margo Price, JEFF The Brotherhood, Natural Child) and Jim Elkington (Tweedy, Richard Thompson, Steve Gunn). The songs jut out from the piers of Fahey and Basho and then tumble into endless buzzing drones and blissful hums. Stripped of the words this would rival any Scissor Tail release for acoustic dominance.
Though that’s not to discount the lyrics on Clipper, they’re as literate and as personal as ever, lending the album Toth’s own brand of rural mesquite, a woodsiness that flecks each song with a mouthful of smoke. In his aim to construct an album that stands alone on it’s instrumentation, he’s succeeded and then some. Combined, however, the instrumental acumen and lyrical quality push this towards one of Toth’s finest releases. The lyrics suggest a haunted America; full of murder ballads and codeine comedowns for a generation adrift and reaching, grasping and grappling with truths that seem to grow less plausible every day. Toth has said that in the wake of 2016’s political heft, he may slow down output, not wanting to add to a glut of musical content out there. But if the spigot slows and each new release is of this caliber, then I’m on board for the wait.
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