While an extra disc of demos might seem to be an interesting counterpart to an album already making the rounds, coming just five months after the initial release of said album might have fans wondering what, exactly, is the point?
It used to be that you had to wait 10 or 20 years before you got a deluxe edition of an album loaded with all sorts of bonus tracks and other goodies. Well, things have changed. The most egregious example of such a change in the marketplace would be the fact that Arcade Fire, one year after releasing their superb 2010 album The Suburbs, put out a special edition of the disc that featured one extended track, two new songs and a bonus DVD. Slim pickings, if you were to ask this writer. Well, you can add Wooden Wand to the list of artists that feel compelled to provide an extra heaping of songs on an album that has barely had time to cool off the presses. Hardly five months after the release of Briarwood (a little longer for those of you in the UK) comes the same album, just loaded with a bonus disc of demos. Say what you want, but it’s hard to not view this as a crass cash grab or rip off to get fans of the band to pony up their hard-earned money to buy the exact same record with the tantalizing prospect of getting new material at the same time. It’s hard not to be cynical about this move – there’s something to be said about letting an album grow in stature with the weathering of time before revisiting the release with all sorts of extras – but it is what it is, one supposes. Maybe it’s a move to fight online piracy? Who knows?
Wooden Wand is essentially the work of one James Jackson Toth, who started life under the Wooden Wand moniker as a bit of a freak folk artist. However, with Briarwood, he turned in something remarkably different: a simmering album of Southern fried country rockers that sounds like a meeting of the Band with Neil Young. The project came out of a split seven-inch with Duquette Johnston, formerly of the Alabama band Verbena, that also featured members of Johnston’s new band, the Gum Creek Killers. Toth wound up enjoying the experience so much that he brought in the band, along with some old alumni, to work with him on what would become Briarwood. The band was christened Wooden Wand and the Briarwood Virgins, but the cover art for this reissue simply restores the band name back to Wooden Wand, presumably to heighten the existence of the newly minted demo recordings. What you get with the demos are cleanly constructed – they were recorded on a digital eight-track tape recorder – country songs, a little bit different in feel from what emerged on the Briarwood album proper. It’s hard to say whether or not these songs existed before Toth met Johnston, but the demos do prove that had Toth not gone down to Birmingham to record, the Briarwood disc might have been vastly different in scope and ambition.
One guesses that the reissue comes to us so soon because Briarwood has generally received warm critical reviews, and either Toth or the record company felt that now would be a good time to strike while the iron was still hot and the album was firmly ensconced in critics' memories. It needs to be said that while Briarwood is not strikingly over-the-top brilliant, it is a well built and darn fine enjoyable album full of nine memorable songs – one of them a smouldering cover of Jim Ford’s “Big Mouth USA”. The eight demos that are included here, mostly presented in the same running order as the Briarwood album (with one noticeable exception that will be touched upon in a few moments) and omitting a version of the Ford cover (which presumably didn’t need a demo), show Toth steely erecting songs in a sit-on-the-back-porch-and-don’t-let-the-screen-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out kind of way. While “Good Time Man” was the only song on Briarwood to feature an acoustic guitar in any sort of prominent role, the songs on the demo takes are largely played acoustically, simmering down the rough and ramshackle nature of the proper album material and making the songs seem more organically lush. The demos, in a sense, are a separate entity, and show what could have been instead of what actually was. That said, the demos (while recorded semi-professionally) are still that: demos. Toth’s guitar playing is, at times, choppy, particularly on his run through of “Scorpion Glow”, and it seems as though what you’re really listening to is an artist still trying to learn the material, as opposed to mastering it.
Still, for anyone remotely interested in this kind of thing, the Briarwood demos provide the listener with the ability to play a game of comparing and contrasting the material. On the demo version, album opener “Winter in Kentucky” is slowed down and feels lonelier, with just a sparsely strummed acoustic and Neil Young-esque harmonica wailing in the background like a train whistle blowing somewhere off in the distance. The song winds up being much more haunting and special than the rocking treatment that it is given on Briarwood. Even if you do wind up preferring the Briarwood version, this take is interesting and makes one wonder about the possibilities. Follow-up track “Scorpion Glow” doesn’t fare as well, however. As noted above, Toth’s playing is a little shaky, and the song lacks the addictive slide guitar of the album track. But things get a little more intriguing a few tracks in with the demo version of “Be My Friend Mary Jo”, which, here, is soft and slow. This take of the song runs a little more than a minute longer than the proper version. What the demo version lacks, however, is the swagger and confidence of the Briarwood version, not to mention the sweet touch of weary background vocals, so you get the sense that the song was really workshopped beyond the demo stage.
The acoustic demo of “Good Time Man”, the most acoustic song on Briarwood, is played at a much slower tempo with a simpler chord progression, and, again, you get the sense that this is merely just a pencil sketch of a much more fully blooded version. “Motel Stationary”, on the demo disc, has about two minutes shorn of the album version’s runtime, which is both a blessing (the extended country rock outro of the Briarwood version does feel a little on the overlong side) and a curse (it feels tentative – not a truly fleshed out song yet). Where the Briarwood demos really diverge from the album is in the sequencing of the final two tracks. Briarwood album closer “The DNR Waltz” is moved up here to penultimate status, leaving “Passin Through” as the demos album closer. This is a bit of an astute move, because, on Briarwood, “Passin Through” really sounds like the genuine close of the album. “The DNR Waltz”, in comparison, feels really tacked on, bludgeoning the impact of the former song. On the demos, “The DNR Waltz” is actually played on an electric guitar, and it rambles on serenely in the background as Toth layers his weary vocals over it. “Passin Through” is back to Spartan territory. It's gently strummed on an acoustic, with a touch of muted electric during the solo, as Toth slurs his way through the lyrics.
The ultimate verdict on all of this is a little hard to pin down. If you’re a die-hard Wooden Wand fan, should you buy a new version of the same album? Depends. The Briarwood demos definitely paint an altered picture of the album’s songs, and is of notice if you’re the type of person who enjoys seeing how material emerged from Point A to Point B. As an “album” on its own, the demos are kind of sketchy at best, but they are enjoyable to listen to if you’re more a fan of more laid-back Americana country music as opposed to scorching country rock. New fans? Well, if you don’t have the Briarwood album as it was originally released, you might want to pick up the deluxe edition if you’re hoping you might have a collector’s item in a few years (assuming that this goes out of print and the original album is maintained as the standard bearer).
Still, the feeling lingers: what is the purpose of this edition? Is it really to showcase a songwriting workshop, or it is a calculated move to peel a few extra bucks off of non-discerning fans? While the demos are sort of revelatory, and are worthy of fascination as a bit of a curiosity item, they are by no stretch “necessary” to gain a fuller appreciation or enjoyment of Briarwood. The album as it was should have just stood on its own in many ways without muddying the waters of its genesis, particularly not just a few months after it has been released. That really means that Briarwood might have been better served to marinate for a few years and really resonate with listeners before unveiling the original fruits of Toth’s creation. That said, it is a good thing that the demos are married with the album proper, unlike what the Waterboys did last year by releasing the This Is the Sea demos outside of the context of the original 1985 album (as In a Special Place) . Still, you can’t help but ask yourself, in this day and age, is it even possible to go more than a few months before a deluxe edition is released? Ultimately, the ultra-quick release of an expanded edition really only serves to potentially devalue, in this case, what was already a fine statement that could stand all on its own.