There’s something suspicious about an artist who issues five albums (and at least a couple of EPs) in one year. This was the case for James Toth’s Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice in 2005 (although one of these, Harum of the Sundrum & the Witness Figg, was credited to Wooden Wand alone, which is Toth’s stage name). Scattered across several labels and documented unevenly, the ensemble has generated a discographical quagmire with their glut of releases. Fortunately for us, we do not need to sort through all of that today. But let’s keep it in mind. Let us imagine these hours and hours of recordings, perhaps unspooling in an unwieldy manner, the chromium tape of Wooden Wand’s master tracks whirring off their reels, snaking around our ankles, frightening our small pets. One part of this serpentine snare would represent The Flood, their final release of 2005.
Comprised of three tracks of 10-plus minutes and three others that run under four minutes each, the album showcases the extremes of WwatVV. While often handed the freak folk label, the trio of extended meditations here reveal Wooden Wand to exist on a different plane from the likes of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsome, or even the more sonically adventurous Animal Collective. Nor do they very closely resemble a post-rockish folk outfit like Six Organs of Admittance, who build layers of texture atop fingerpicked acoustic guitar figures. No, the music of Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice comes from farther afield. Perhaps it even literally comes from a field. This is the setting I imagine for these neo-hippies, with a dirt trail leading from a remote cabin and into a large clearing where the brush and weeds have been trampled down to reveal a perfect circle. Inside of its circumference, Toth gathers with his sound-oozing pals. Eyes closed and fingertips reading the pulses of their instruments, the collective attunes to some frequency, or perhaps an array of linked frequencies, and they begin to play.
“Snake Earl” is founded upon some raga-like banjo figure, so dry and spare and haunted that Jandek must be flush with pride. Other noises join in, fluttering, buzzing, plucking, wailing quietly in the great distance. And then a female voice emerges, low and strong, singing: “Curious love, what are you? / Curious heart, give me truth / Goodbye”. As the noise and tension slowly builds, she tells us: “The hideous loneliness haunts me no more.” On a song like this, all of the energies channeled become perfectly aligned.
Not so, however, with either of The Flood‘s other epic explorations. The title track feels much more forced and self-aware. Instead of growing organically from a cosmic commune with nature, the 14 minutes of “The Flood” evoke a room full of college kids listening to albums by Lamont Young and Faust, stoned beyond the grasp of time, and possibly mutilating a theremin. Whatever that sound is, it’s totally nauseating and demonically persistent. Amazingly, album closer “Satyn Sai Sweetback Plays Oxblood Boots” discovers more facets of annoyance. Is that actually a distorted kazoo, or just a cheap imitation of one? And those feedbacking vocal echoes are straight out of some cheesy 1968 horror film, or an episode of Star Trek where things go awry on some freaky orange planet.
The lows on The Flood are pretty low. It is not an album to be enjoyed straight through. Still, it is greatly redeemed by its gorgeous opening track and the three short cuts at its center. They make for a lovely little trio, featuring mostly acoustic guitar and some very fine vocals. “Dogpaddlin’ Home In Line With My Lord,” in particular, is a wonderful song of acoustic folk blues and gospel chanting. When they’re on, Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice are mighty conjurers of beautiful musical spells. When they miss the mark, the folks behind the curtain are revealed, inglorious and a bit awkward. There are many fruits from which to pick on the tree of Wooden Wand. The flesh of The Flood is sweet, but with a chance of worms. Pickers, you are forewarned.