Although James Jackson Toth has been making music — or been a musical vessel — for far longer, 2013 marks just about the 10th year of his work as Wooden Wand (at least if one trusts discographies). Early on tagged with the unfortunate “New Weird America” tag alongside No-Neck Blues Band, Paul Flaherty, and Sunburned Hand of the Man (all completely different from one another), Toth’s work within WW was then often improvised as part of the communal ensemble Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice. Dropping the “VV,” he also performed and recorded solo and fed his lyrical instinct in the mid-aughts, adding ensemble performers to flesh out songwriting with gritty propulsion in such outfits as Wooden Wand & The Sky High Band or Wooden Wand & The Briarwood Virgins, now renamed Wooden Wand & The World War IV. It’s quite easy to lose count of the myriad micro-editions he and his groups/aliases (Hassara, Jehovah, WAND) have released over the decade, but documentation of his/their process is a crucial part of the puzzle.
The eponymous Wooden Wand & The World War IV follows up a Wooden Wand EP and an LP for Three Lobed (WWVV, Wooden Wand & The Omen Bones Band), as well as a few tracks on the 2011 box set compilation Not The Spaces You Know, But Between Them. What WW has derived from improvisation and group music-making is a way of separating the kernels from the chaff and composing stripped-down, effective tunes that feel both fleshy and stark. Drawing from influences as diverse as Neil Young, Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, and Sonic Youth, the general texture of Wooden Wand & The World War IV is that of twangy dirges by way of early-90s noise rock. The music’s economy and Toth’s obsessive rejoinders can be trance-like, also recalling the prayerful minimalism of Lungfish. But that’s not to say that Toth and the World War IV aren’t highly original craftspeople — the leader’s non-sequiturs and imagist fragments both grant an abstract but warm verbal landscape and contribute to the music’s toothy atmosphere.
Opening with tumbling percussion and wiry jangle, “Someday This Child Will Die” rests on a supple groove that pushes its dirge-like wail forward, curiously limned by soulful female “oooohs” until the ensemble shifts into a dusty and distorted breakdown, Toth’s garage-honed interpretation of Neil Young leading the way. The tune almost immediately jumps into “Directions to Debbie Harry’s House,” a fuzzy metronome (à la Asa Osborne and Mitchell Feldstein) with graspable peaks that nudge a warm chorus of twined masculinity and femininity. Toth’s guitar playing owes little to Osborne or much in post-punk, rather feeding back and splaying out into long, windblown lines from decades prior. “I Hate the Nightlife” seems to come out somewhere on the right side of The Lines or Gang of Four; a shrouded side-closer with angles in its rolls, its cold, bleak energy, if post-industrial, resides in the brick and foliage of the Ohio River Valley.
The second side unseats the previous four songs’ condensation, employing a healthy dose of laconic drift on “Our Father the Monster,” twangy breezes, and gentle elisions gradually offset by Toth’s bucking electricity, which eventually coalesces into an unwieldy shredding duel that brings the tune home. Following the acoustic reprieve of “Human Instrument,” which serves to break the flow, the set closes with the Antietam/Come-like engine of “McDonald’s on the Moon,” guitar strands grittily merging and ricocheting from a militaristic march, Toth’s absurdist and stripped-down consumer references providing slight, perhaps obvious levity (“the pope’s on Twitter”).
While often a subtly complex lyricist who matches snark with an equally arid beauty, with The World War IV, Wooden Wand’s music seems to fall more greatly on the side of texture. In a sense, it appears to bring this music full circle to the rural and green communal grit of WWVV — a sound of place and experience for which words are loosely stitched objects helping to hold the shape. This may define Wooden Wand & The World War IV as a sleeper record, but those are often the ones that true believers cherish the most.