[25 April 2006]
James ‘Wand Jehovah’ Toth and his Vanishing Voice collective have always revelled in their own self-mythologising, deliberately drawing up an air of inscrutable otherworldliness like a cloak of comfortable obscurity. Up to now, they have presented themselves to the world through a quasi-mystical haze, with blurred images, fictional biographies, and secret identities that sound like a cross between the Magic Band and Yahowa 13 (as well as Wooden Wand himself, this record is graced by Satya Sai Kali Jehovah, Glucas Nonhorse Crane, Steven the Harvester, and Heidi White Diamond Diehl). So, it comes as something of a surprise to see a band photo adorning the inner sleeve of this latest CD that finds them outdoors, in an ordinary city street, in the sunshine, wearing shoes and generally looking like a bunch of thirty-somethings who have jobs, smoke a little dope on the weekends, maybe even play Dungeons and Dragons now and then.
In a similar way, this album, too, sounds like an act of ‘coming clean’, of dropping some of the pretence and showing themselves as they really are. Gipsy Freedom takes the many influences that have shown up throughout the Voice’s baffling back catalogue of cassettes, CD-Rs and bona fide releases—improv, free-jazz, noise, folk, and rock—and shuffles them together, perhaps more seamlessly than ever before, to create something else entirely.
The album begins with the soulful alto sax doodles of special guest, veteran free-jazz legend Daniel Carter, before Heidi Diehl’s strident vocal comes in singing about peace being a phoenix and other hopeful, unabashedly hippy-ish sentiments. As ever, her voice is an uneasy presence: beautiful, intimate, genuine, and utterly honest. She’s also the whitest-sounding female vocalist at work today, managing to sound at one moment like a Nietzschean über-freak—almost like the singer from an alternate-reality Nazi Krautrock outfit—and at the next moment like a Sunday School teacher on the edge of a nervous breakdown—especially when indulging in the Voice’s trademark Christian overtones, as on “Didn’t It Rain”, where she works herself up into a Biblical frenzy, repeating the line “Didn’t it rain, my Lord” as though herding animals onto the ark in a pious panic.
There are other highlights. “Don’t Love the Liar” is a shrill minute-and-a-half that manages to combine a Black Sabbath riff with Comus-style acid-folk and twitchy No Wave. But the stand-out track has to be “Dread Effigy”, a pretty much perfect slice of dreamy avant-folk, with acoustic finger picking, distorted, psychedelic lead guitar, and creaking vocals. In another universe where the ‘60s never ended and naïve curiosity rules, this would easily make the Top 10.
Yet, while this comes across as being probably their most satisfying and accessible release to date, in doing so it also signals the fact that, rather than doing something unique and idiosyncratic, the Voice are really ploughing much the same furrow as the rest of the so-called “freak folk” movement. It also comes as something of a disappointment to realize that a lot of it is being done just as well, if not better, elsewhere. “Hey Pig He Stole My Sound” is a lumbering mess of percussion and feedback that sounds like one of Jackie-O Motherfucker’s looser jams, while “Dead End Days With Ceasar” (sic) is a 20-minute stoner groove with an insistent, creeping bassline, atonal psych guitar, and murmuring effects, featuring an insouciant Beatnik rap, that all comes together to sound uncannily like one of Sunburned Hand of the Man’s rumbling, intuitive juggernauts.
All of which is not to say that Wooden Wand & the Vanishing Voice are consciously or deliberately appropriating the sounds of these other denizens of the New Weird America. It’s just that, by stripping away some of their idiosyncrasies, and playing straight to the free-folk crowd, they almost inevitably sacrifice some of the post-Christian, cracked Americana that gives them their unique voice.
Which makes it something of relief to get to the final track, “Genesis Joplin”, and hear Satya Sai Kali Jehovah’s strange occult confession of dancing with devils: ‘‘I have used their horns as handles / Every time we danced as one”, she intones with the perfect mix of sexuality and horror, like a psychedelic Denis Wheatley dream. It’s precisely where we want the Vanishing Voice to be coming from: behind robes and masks, just before dawn, in a forest, wreathed in magic and doom.