Wooden Wand is dead. James Toth, the Knoxville-based tunesmith and serial collaborator who’s spent the better part of the noughties masquerading as Wand, has announced that James and the Quiet is his final pseudonymous recording. My initial reaction to Wand’s retirement is one of indifference. The Wooden one’s albums with the Vanishing Voice, Omen Bones Band, and Sky High Band — especially those released within the last year — have yielded more psychedelic gems than atonal junk, but his nihilistic, overly clever persona was the least interesting aspect of all of those records. For every striking metaphor or refined epigram that Wand turned, he delivered a stanza-length pastiche of garbled clichés as unentertaining and disengaged from reality as the rankest artifacts dredged up during Beck’s cultural dumpster diving excursions. Who mourns the death of a flippant, two-dimensional character?
Astonishingly, James and the Quiet renders this question moot: Wand is actually interesting on this record — or, more accurately, Toth is interesting. He’s finally reached a point at which his continually evolving songcraft has grown too formidable to justify Wand’s rampant jackassery. Toth’s imagery and sense of narrative have matured considerably, and his latest batch of arrangements (courtesy of his wife, Jessica, and Lee Ranaldo) are taut and I dare say refined. But by making such an elegant, labored-over album, Toth gives the lie to two assumptions that have girded his past works: all is void, and all is ridiculous. Now the magnetic attraction of beauty and the consolations provided by good form are challenging Toth’s philosophical precepts, and this album explores the anxieties that foster this tension.
In lead-off number “The Pushers”, Toth stumps for absurdity as a stay against evil: “Beneath brains and egos / We’ll laugh at the devil”, he promises against the din of raunchy blues licks and lockstep tambourine smacks. His abnegating post-rationalism has a boundary, however, and it’s Toth’s insistence on being taken seriously. “It’s not shit that I shovel”, he argues after railing against humility, parents, and organized religion. He hopes that we’ll perceive his assaults on clarity and traditional values not as an oaf’s middle-finger, but as an insurgent’s clenched fist — as the gesture of a man willing to fight and die for his most cherished beliefs, because he is convinced of their transcendence and goodness. Such beliefs are held, of course, in opposition to evils that can’t be laughed off.
I would dock Toth for undercutting and contradicting himself in “The Pushers”, but many of the album’s other songs implode in similar ways, leading me to believe that Toth is indulging in an extended session of self-examination and is, in fact, up to something here. In “Future Dream”, he narrates a late night visit from the Witch of Endor, who leads a confused Wand on a fantastical journey. In the somnambulant trek’s climactic moment, Wand sees himself bumbling his way through a concert and empathizes with his bored onlookers — among them, his parents. Ashamed of his amateurism, Wand entertains questions existential — “Is there nothing more than this for me?” — and epistemological — “Is there nothing more to this than me?”. He finds no answers, but we can tell from the tearing in his voice what he hopes those answers will be: There is more for you, and there is more than you. At this point, we should remind ourselves that Toth has played a number of concerts and recorded a number of albums that were chores to listen to.
The self-critique continues in the title track, far and away the most melodic and infectious song Toth has cut. In the first verse, he hears two voices that he discerns to be those of St. Peter and the Madonna. The voices petition him to forsake his alter ego and to live as simply Jim. From this point out, I lose the plot, as Toth grows inscrutable, jumping between obtuse images — motors made of skin, pawn shop clerks — as quickly as Lil’ Wayne. When given the chance to publicly renounce Wand, Toth reverts into Wand.
Compositionally, James and the Quiet is far surer of its identity. Toth and his band — which includes Jarvis Taveniere and DM Seidel of Vanishing Voice, Jeremy Earl of Meneguar, and Steve Shelley and Ranaldo of Sonic Youth — play without any of the psychedelic pedals that have dominated his previous albums, opting instead for a crisp, economic sound steeped in rock tradition. And unlike most young rockers whose record shelves are more populous than a rural Georgia county, Toth hasn’t made a clean break with the last 15 years of indie rock: as the headphone-friendly twin acoustic and electric guitars in “In a Bucket” demonstrate, Sebadoh and Guided by Voices inform this record as much as the Byrds and Waylon Jennings do. Closer “Wired to the Sky”, awash in Iron and Wine-ish guitar chime and balmy boy-girl harmonies, even sounds like an indie-to-mainstream crossover track from two years ago.
“Wired to the Sky” reminds us that the self-examining and maturing that Toth’s doing could prove disastrous — if he loses his bearings, he could embrace convention too fervently and go the way of Wilco. Whether or not he’ll hit a dad-rock slump remains to be seen, but the uncertainty that James and the Quiet creates about the direction Toth is headed give it, for better and worse, the unmistakable air of a “transitional album”. The lack of resolution in Toth’s critique of his own philosophies reinforces this vibe: at this point, he’s still stranded between desperately wanting to ascribe transcendent meaning and value to his art, and remaining skeptical of the sense of responsibility and restrictions on personal freedom that such meaning and value imply.