James Jackson Toth has been making beautiful variations on folk music as Wooden Wand for quite a while now, but at this point the shift in sound on Briarwood comes as a welcome change. That’s not because he has run out of ideas, mind you. His last album, the excellent Death Seat, may have been his best yet. But it followed other solid but deeply dark albums, like
, that followed a time where Toth lost his band—mid-tour—and a major-label deal and scrambled to find his way. The music that came out of it was tuneful but raw, deeply wounded all the way through. If you’ve kept up with Toth, even as you’ve enjoyed his music, surely you’ve also hoped things would get better for him.
Briarwood seems to be the sound of him turning a vital corner. The project began when Toth was invited to record a split 7-inch with Duquette Johnston, formerly of the undersold Alabama rockers Verbena. Toth accepted and went to Birmingham and recorded with Johnston’s band, the Gum Creek Killers, and loved the experience so much he enlisted the band—along with some long-time friends—to work with him on his next record. Thus, the Briarwood Virgins were born.
Given the Alabama ties, it might not surprise you to hear that this is a set of boozy, swaying Southern rock. What may surprise you, though, is to hear how easily Toth slides into this new sound. It’s expansive and power, full of ringing pianos and thick pedal steel and rumbling drums, and Toth answers this muscle with his most powerful vocal performance yet. He doesn’t wail, per se, but there’s a plainspoken strength to his voice, so when he launches into his intricate, detailed stories—full of airplane blankets and prescription pads and other “crazy shit”—you wait anxiously to hear the next line. Toth executes these songs with the skill of a long-time storyteller, and the band gives him a churning landscape on which to place these tales.
From the start, the music sounds as emotive at Toth himself. “Winter in Kentucky”, which finds Toth shoveling out Church lots among other seedier tasks, is built on the dingy trudge of piano and ringing guitar chords. It’s a song that sounds cold and tired, but sweetly so. The twangier “Scorpion Glow”, thick with overdrive-heavy slide guitar, is a bleary-eyed fireside stomper. Even as Toth admits he and others “went to Walmart for the irony,” he strips that away to get at a deeper wandering emotion, and the band bangs it out behind him.
Briarwood works best when it meshes Toth’s folk sensibilities with this new rock sound. Toth, who has a tattoo that reads “What Would Neil Young Do?”, takes the group into Crazy Horse’s territory in these moments, and manages to both honor Young’s great band and make the sound his own. The best example is also the longest song here, the impressive “Hotel Stationary”. It’s a swampy number, filled up by beautiful female backing vocals adding a soulful depth to the echoed guitars. In an album of ragged, loose rock numbers, this is the most cut free. The band stretches out and feels for its limitations, and manages to find none. It’s a traditional rock sound—one you’ve sort of heard before—but between Toth’s keen attention to detail and the sheer zeal of the guitar work, you’re not likely to forget this one.
Other moments feel just as energetic, but don’t hold up as well. The band’s take on Jim Ford’s “Big Mouth USA” mixes huge guitars with light organs well, but the slip from unique details to vague, catch-all images of baptisms and “everybody talking about everyone else” feels dismissive in a way the rest of the record isn’t. “Good Time Man” suffers from a similar trouble, shifting into country dust and leaning on a sentiment—when a “good time man (goes) bad”—that even Toth can’t inject new feeling into.
These moments are few, though, and Briarwood is not only a satisfying record all the way through, it’s oddly comforting for fans of Toth. As much as we liked him plucking away in the dark, it turns out he can shine in the light just as well, and he sure plays well with others. Whether this is a fleeting experiment or a signpost for a new direction in his music, it’s nice to see Toth in this spot, where the past finally seems passed, and the future is bright, if still uncertain.