An otherwise nondescript street corner, the intersection of Vanderslice and Franklin in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, is a crossroads of socio-economic statuses in the former steel town residing on the left edge of the Philadelphia suburbs. Head south down the “high bridge” and you’ll encounter the heart of the borough with its art galleries, bars, bodegas, coffee shops and the Colonial Theatre — the town’s lynchpin made famous by The Blob. To the west, row homes once occupied by Ukrainian immigrants who staffed the Phoenix Iron Works now belong to first-time home buyers as do the single family homes with mulched and manicured lawns a block north, once built for and by blue collar managers at the turn of the 20th century. An eastward turn towards the “low bridge” with its graffitied railroad trestle, puts one on the path to a series of dead ends and questionable parks covering a three-block stretch lined by apartment houses and stuccoed duplexes dotted by ass-warmed stoops, boarded windows and “Unfit for Human Habitation” notices.
The brick façade that marks this corner bears an East Coast similitude to the Church Hill district home in Richmond, Virginia, that graces the cover of Clipper Ship, the new album from singer/songwriter Wooden Wand. Lacking the urban realism required by the trunk thumpers who traverse Phoenixville’s bridges and too obtuse for the office dwellers occupying the newly built luxury apartments along the French Creek, James Jackson Toth’s notion that “One Can Only Love” is a universal theme that rings true regardless of one’s station.
Compiled after a three-year absence following 2014’s Farmer’s Corner, one must delve beyond the pensive folk overlay of Clipper Ship to ascertain the brilliance of Toth’s current logic. Culling from the likes of James Baldwin, Robert Frost and Trinie Dalton, Toth layers lyrical poetry over musical beds planted by Ryan Norris (Coupler, Lambchop), Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Nathan Salsburg (Joan Shelley), Kyle Hamlett (Lylas) et al. Changing tack, the seven songs of Clipper Ship began as instrumental pieces, their lyrics conceived by Toth at a later date.
The floating, acoustic “School’s Out” with its pedal steel is sung in sonnet form, the alpha and omega chorus of “The snow is now falling / Now school can begin / The snow has all melted / And school’s out again” serves as the song’s final quatrain. Outsmarting the unschooled street hustlers, the philosophical narrator of “Mexican Coke” turns the naiveté of his mark on its head; the latter’s penchant for nostalgia is cast aside in the name of commerce: “You ask me why I carry cash around with me all the time / Don’t you see all these ‘Yard Sale’ signs? / When I flip this first edition for a cool grand / Then maybe you’ll understand.”
Despite the false belief that “The sun’s not going down, the sun’s just being shy”, the Sherpa of the Dalton-inspired “Sacrificial” is replaced by a Septa driver ferrying travelers toward the confluence of Vanderslice and Franklin on the 139 bus, its neighboring alleyways and blind corners blanketed in a humid menace of dead paint and moving air come dusk. Clipper Ship, too, takes on a midnight tone with the murder ballad “Mallow T’ward the River”. A Faulknerian triptych with cosmic repercussions, the farcical burial of Perry, the protagonist of the piece, shall forever haunt an unnamed river with his ashes; the acoustic build of the first two movements giving way to a skittering Middle Eastern fugue — a simulacrum of racing hearts and upstream-flowing waters.
Progress begets compromise, or, as Toth sings on “Mexican Coke”, “If you leave the doors open so the flies can escape / You’re just inviting the rattlesnakes.” As Phoenixville gentrifies and its quadrants close tighter, are its revived murals fated to be “Hurtling past / With a painted moonsail on the mast?” A sea change for Toth with its altered origin and minimalist compositions, Clipper Ship is an opus of restraint. Without a doubt a Wooden Wand album, its players are given the freedom to explore; Toth’s innate gift of melody remains, as does is his understanding of the human condition. A sage Everyman, Toth sings for and to all points of the compass — his grunge-cum-Crip cover attire notwithstanding — should the populace at large listen, every perpendicular the world over could shine a little brighter and wiser without regard for history or square footage.