Christie finally sold her first painting, so she and her boyfriend decide to take a weekend roadtrip to the Outsider Blues Fest in Toronto. On their way out of town, the boyfriend, who narrates the incident for us, pops Mississippi Fred McDowell into the CD player, but Christie vetoes him. They’ll hear enough blues over the weekend, she says. Instead, they settle on Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. Christie drums her fingers serenely on the steering wheel; the narrator sings along, every word to every song; and for a while, the couple slips into the blissful and thoroughly modern pleasure that comes from finding the perfect soundtrack for piloting an automobile down the open road. Then the narrator skips past “You Gotta Move.” Christie asks why, and in an act of naked passive-aggression, he replies: “I thought you said no blues.”
A small scene captured in mundane detail, but within it hides an entire universe of love’s small sacrifices and resentments. Leave it to James Jackson Toth, the man behind Wooden Wand, to do so much with so little. Each song on Blood Oaths of the New Blues presents its own self-contained world, full of so much love, fear, and regret it’s nearly overwhelming.
Take “Supermoon (Sounding Line),” for instance, a song named after the astrological phenomenon that occurs when a full or new moon coincides with the moon’s nearest approach to the earth. According to some, the supermoon has the effect of stripping people of their emotional defenses. It is in this state of vulnerability that Toth approaches his subject, contemplating suicide by drowning. Despite its bleakness, it’s one of the album’s loveliest offerings, with Janet Elizabeth Simpson’s velvety backing vocals enveloping Toth’s mortal ruminations like the icy depths his protagonist contemplates.
Even that just feels like a warm-up to “South Colorado Song,” which relates the story of the Dougherty Gang, a trio of siblings from Florida who, for seven days, played an interstate game of cat and mouse with the law after robbing a bank in Georgia. There’s an implacable quality to the music, with its insistent and almost liquid repetition of guitar phrases that, when coupled with Simpson’s distant-sounding vocal washes, takes on air of both grandeur and sad inevitability. Toth’s lyrics dance a similar line between self-aggrandizement (“The day of reckoning’s upon me”) and fatalism (“Sometimes nowhere seems the only place to go”). It’s a fitting homage to three individuals who constructed a larger-than-life family mythology to shield themselves from the precariousness of their situation.
Blood Oaths occupies a unique place amid Toth’s most recent output: warmer than Death Seat’s brittle austerity, yet more solemn and brooding than the raucous Briarwood (unexpected, since many of that record’s players return for Blood Oaths ). Toth had set out to make the kind of album “he would listen to on headphones when he was 14 and discovering hallucinogens,” comparing his effort to such diverse records as King Diamond’s Abigail and Nico’s Desertshore. But this record seems far too grounded in simple day-to-day humanity to sit comfortably next to such bizarre phantasmagorias. Only in his tribute to Coil co-founder Jhonn Balance does Toth delve into more abstract territory, undergirding the song with the drones and electronic whines of its namesake.
Whether or not Blood Oaths will help to cleanse the doors of some burgeoning head’s perception, it’s a pretty remarkable record. It brings out the best in Toth both as a musician and a songwriter. One could hope that he will continue in this vein for some time to come, but to paraphrase the man himself, this incarnation of Wooden Wand is surely only one version of real. If there’s one thing we can depend on when it comes to James Jackson Toth, it’s that he’ll keep us guessing.