Harem of the Sundrum & the Witness Figg
US release date: 21 June 2005
UK release date: Available as import
PopMatters Music Special Sections Editor
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Wooden Wand (aka James Toth) produces a Southern gothic sound, but he’s more connected to the New York anti-folk scene than he is the Georgian backwoods. While his music moves ever toward rural dissipation, his recorded output advances the technological path from CD-R to honest to goodness CDs on known labels. Accompanying the media upgrade has been an increase invisibility, as Toth’s recent solo album, Harem of the Sundrum & the Witness Figg, and latest full-band outing, a reissue of 2003’s XIAO with the Vanishing Voice, have started getting attention. Primarily the bearded indie kids are porching out to this music now, but it’s worth a further look whether you’re an old-time gruffian or a latte listener.
Toth’s solo recording contains far more conventional songwriting, performed primarily as guitar and voice numbers. Tracks like “Leave Your Perch…” and “Vengeance, pt. 2” won’t shock you with their structures or attitudes, but they’re delivered with sophistication, at least in the lo-fi sense. Toth opens the album with the drawn-out yet captivating “Leave Your Perch…”, setting the album in an old folk gathering, maybe a Village basement, but the following track “Perch Modifier” moves us west, as Toth delves into the country side of his aesthetic. He turns up the tempo then for “Vengeance, pt. 2”, echoing the college-folk music that I can only guess has ceased to make the rounds (at least I haven’t seen tour dates for my boys Life in General in some time).
It’s three songs and three distinct but related sounds for Toth, and he sticks to that idea throughout the disc. The sequencing works throughout with each track bringing something surprising yet appropriate into the mix. Toth holds these varied approaches together by maintaining a relatively somber feel (minus a few lines delivered through a smirk) and by returning to questions of spirit. He utilizes Christian imagery and language, but never settles into that religious view, moving instead in more generalized concepts (“I am the air and water”). By the end of the Harem, Toth comes across as either an all-knowing but partially-sharing guru or a lost pilgrim; in either case, the invitation’s open to walk with him.
If you take that walk, at some point, you’ll settle down to rest for the night. While Harem is the voice of the campfire troubadour easing off thestrain of the day, XIAO is the haunting that takes place at the edge of the firelight. His solo work doesn’t stretch tradition that much, but here he and his band sacrifice form and melody for the sake of ghostly experimentation and seeking. The album opens with chime-like strings backing dueling erratic vocals by Toth. “Caribou Christ in the Great Void” unrolls in lugubrious psychedelia, narrated by female vocals. The spirituality of the solo album moves even further from religion, as three bizarre “Christ” tracks push into an almost earthy faith, even as Toth refers insistently to the “belly of the whale”. Spirituality is no more easily negotiated than is structure on these six songs.
XIAO works to push the boundaries of what constitutes folk, but it hardly seems fair to put it in that genre. Occasionally sounding like the indigenous calls of some unknown group, Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice construct music that has less to do with what wefolk and more to do with primal explorations. Fans of Animal Collective’s most adventurous and least rhythmically-centered tracks will find a similar attitude and conceptual frame on XIAO (although not always related sounds). The plodding moments of “Cobra Christ of the Cabbages” turn into horror soundtrack fare, and are creepier than any movie I’ve seen in some time. The album as a whole marries spirituality with the ominous; there’s a wild-eyed preacher about to kill.
Across these two albums, we can get a sense of the range of what’s being lumped together as freak-folk (or insert modifier like “avant”, “nu”, etc.). As a solo artist, Wooden Wand plays with tradition, never settling comfortably into a genre, yet maintaining orienting points of reference in his music. When joined with the Vanishing Voice, however, he goes off with the band into spacious trips that remain de-centered and mostly impenetrable. Listening to one album or the other is hammock-dream or a nightmare; as a pair, they’re reason to keep your eyes open.