[10 January 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
James Jackson Toth is both reliable and impossible to predict. His heart-worn tunes always evoke the dark dust of country or the solitary keen of folk music, but he drifts from the more wide-open experiments of earlier records to the straight-ahead heartbreak of the excellent Death Seat to last year’s boozy barroom stomp Briarwood. That album was a more approachable, even charming, side of Toth’s songwriting, bringing some players in to beef up his songs while still maintaining their solitary core. It was a new shift for a songwriter that needed no shift, a slight twist of the knife he so slyly slipped between our ribs so long ago.
And now, with Blood Oaths of the New Blues, Toth has surprised us with, well, consistency. This marks the first time the same band has backed him on consecutive Wooden Wand records, but this is hardly Briarwood revisited. Instead, this album pares back the barroom sway and gets back to the lonesome feel of Toth himself. The other players are restrained, their sounds spare, but they echo out into vast space while Toth groans sweetly and his guitar rings out with heavy minor chords and slowly pulled-off notes. It’s a striking return to familiar territory that somehow doesn’t feel familiar at all. It’s got all the confidence mixed with worry of Death Seat, and the songs hit with a similar impact, equal parts faint hope and fading despair.
Those who have listened to Toth’s work in the past may not be surprised to find that, like so many folk singers and country troubadours before him, this album deals in wandering quite a bit. “Outsider Blues” is about a road trip to a music festival. “Southern Colorado Song” takes a darker turn with the account of a crime spree. Even “Dungeon of Irons”, about the souls of the executed, showcases those spirits adrift. It all starts with the epic, 12-minute opener, “No Bed for Beatle Wand/Days This Long”, a song that seems to be wandering itself. The slow, bleary-eyed chord progression and spare percussion that opens the song sounds like a drunken sway, maybe pushing against a stiff winter wind. It doesn’t have propulsion so much as inertia, heading nowhere in particular. Or so it seems. But as the progression moves, without vocals, for three, nearly four minutes, it seems to right its direction, take on shape and purpose, so that when Toth starts singing, it isn’t so much that he’s found a path that he’s forged his own, no less boozy perhaps, but a bit more purposeful. By the time one trudges through Toth’s mining of the past and its myriad regrets, and get to the second half of the song (titled, it seems, “Days This Long”) the bluesy shuffle shifts, ever so slightly, into a pastoral glide. Though Toth seems weary, “Days this long draw out,” he moans, in admitting the impossible weight of time he feels oddly free, cut loose, ready to accept this weary road and travel on.
And so the album plays with our expectations, as it presents us with melancholy and utter aloneness, but often the moment that feels the most alienated is also the brightest. Another element, introduced in that first song, that may add to this brightness, is that Toth’s companion in all these songs, both sonically and thematically, is the music itself. Music and its power to set moods, to amplify and placate our emotions, its ability to mesh with our surroundings and make them somehow more affecting, more meaningful, is all over this record. Toth references his own music, comparing the universal nature of emotion with the fleeting nature of inspiration as, on “No Bed for Beatle Wand/Days This Long”, he admits, “I may feel different since I wrote this down,” even as the feeling he renders with those words persists. In other places, like “Outsider Blues”, we get the effect of other people’s music, of how playing the wrong Rolling Stones song in the car can turn the mood, of how playing the right one can create a memory. “Jhonn Balance” pays a direct tribute to one of Toth’s musical heroes, drawing a clear line between performer and the sounds (i.e. another past) that shaped him.
The space around all of these songs makes Toth’s voice sound stark, but it also implies a possibility. For one, the space belies Toth’s focus on the past and implies it is ever-fading, further away today than it was yesterday. It also shows that unknowable path ahead, where it may be headed. By the time we get to acoustic closer, “No Debts”, which paints a picture of someone untied, economically and otherwise, to a life about to be left behind, freedom has overtaken worry. This is still a solitary freedom, not one gained by joining a community (“There’s much to be gleaned from the mirror when nobody’s home,” Toth sings on “Jhonn Balance”), but it’s no less bracing for its isolation. Blood Oaths of the New Blues is a fascinating, often harrowing album that succeeds by being lonesome without sounding closed off, by both haunting and comforting us at the same time. With a discography of so many incomparable parts, it’s hard to call this (or any other fine moment) his best, but it’s a powerful display of his strengths, a picture of a man wandering, seemingly aimless, and yet finding questions, fruitful ones, that sound like convincing answers in his weary timbre.