Music

Wooden Wand & the Briarwood Virgins: Briarwood

Photo: Leah Hutchison Toth

Whether this is a fleeting experiment or a new direction in his music, it's nice to see James Jackson Toth in this spot, where the past finally seems passed, and the future is bright, if still uncertain.


Wooden Wand & the Briarwood Virgins

Briarwood

US Release: 2011-11-22
Label: Fire
UK Release: 2011-11-07
Artist Website
Label Website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image