Wooden Wand Second Attention (and The Sky High Band)

[Kill Rock Stars; 2006]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: freak folk, noisy commune jam sessions
Others: Ya Ho Wha 13, No Neck Blues Band, Feathers, Six Organs of Admittance

When talking to The Wire about Gipsy Freedom earlier this year, James Toth (a.k.a. Wooden Wand) suggested that his musical projects had in some ways escaped the control of their creators and taken on a life of their own. "We're actually pretty passive in this whole process," Toth told Marc Masters. "A lot of times I feel more like an observer than an actual participant." Fair enough: while Wooden Wand's group work with The Vanishing Voice, solo albums, and satellite projects don't yet qualify as a bona fide phenomenon, it's hard to deny that Toth's music has captured a large number of imaginations in a short amount of time. Most folks started paying attention when Troubleman Unlimited reissued 2003's Xiao last summer, but I think many of those people feel a lot like my friend Ben, who swears that the band he's followed voraciously for the past year is one he's been listening to his "entire life."

But as much as Wooden Wand's art has snowballed into a thing, few critics have known what to do with the guy. Like many of his fellow travelers, Toth and his collaborators release albums by the armful – excluding obscure format and limited-run stuff, Wand's given us five full-lengths during the earth's most recent trip around the sun. And as counterintuitive as it might seem to close-read that kind of output, that's what far too many writers have done, addressing Toth's work on an album-by-album basis, as if each disc represents a distinct point in a linear progression. Others dispense with specifics altogether and hone in on Toth's self-mythologizing impulse, taking the music for granted (just more freaky foresty folky whatnot) and focusing on the silly pseudonyms. Second Attention, Toth's first recording with The Sky High Band – a hybrid of Vanishing Voice and Bay Area psych troupe Skygreen Leopards – stands to make good on its name and ask critics to give Wooden Wand a second, more thorough thought. The album's a good place to step back and survey Toth's growth, look outward to think about his music's increasingly important role in the American rock underground, and listen in for a song cycle that stands quite nicely on its own.

Less invested and obsessive listeners might be the ones who need most to check out Second Attention. Even moreso than last year's solo flight Harem of the Sundrum & The Witness Fig, this is Wooden Wand at his friendliest and most accessible, demonstrating his sixth sense for melody while he and his bandmates channel their individual brands of hairy psychedelia into Neil Michael Hagerty-inspired call-and-response lick-trading (see the end of "Portrait in the Clouds"). Opener "Crucifixion, Pt. II" sounds like an alternate universe Neutral Milk Hotel, its vibrant beginners-level guitar chords and swaying melody capable of holding listeners in more of a spell than they have any right to, and twanging like something Jeff Mangum might have written had he been situated anywhere in the South other than Athens. Toth's classic rock fixation finds its finest outlet yet in "Madonna," whose almost-boogying piano line might as well have been cribbed from an early Band album (more on that later). We've heard hints of this pastoral folk-rock from Toth in past efforts like The Flood's "Dogpaddlin' Home in Line with My Lord" and the recent Horus of the Horizon EP (part of Three Lobed's Modern Containment subscription series), but the style's more fleshed-out here, with Hammond organ, ramshackle blooze guitar, and shit-yeah solos as integral components of the record's life-blood. This is the bid for a wider audience that Devendra Banhart should have made.

Lyrics are stronger, too. Early Wooden Wand lines served up a mix of religious mania, spiritual questing, baroque imagery, and hard-lived folk maxims in radical juxtaposition with one another, creating a web of recycled metaphysical babble. Toth's still speaking in borrowed tongues, but now his phrasing's more concise, his arrangements more purposive. He spins one-liners as well as any blog-approved MC ("I get the news from my shoes/ Traffic reports from my shorts") and gives cryptic twists to familiar ideas ("I have always wished I could be born again to you"), and his stonewashed voice anchors his verbal hijinks quite well. Toth's pipes sound warm and rich as a vintage tube amp, lending a stamp of earnestness to his playfulness. As memorable and affecting as his lines are, however, Toth's songs still resist clear narrative and don't make a hell of a lot of sense in the end; they reflect keenly the stakes of their singer's self-described "spiritual dilettantism," stringing together unlikely sets of eloquently-voiced ideas and images into wholes that lack the sense of closure and certainty implied by their parts. Wand's grown adept at rendering faith's brilliant flashes while discarding, for better and worse, its weighty principles.

The more I listen, the more it seems that Toth's choice of cover art – a takeoff of John and Beverly Martyn's 1970 cult classic Stormbringer! – is particularly apt, much more than just another of his frequent tips of the hat to musical icons. Stormbringer! was the point where John Martyn really came into his own. His two previous records bore heavily the influence of Topic Records-style revivalist folk, while Stormbringer! injected a heavy dose of slightly experimental pop into Martyn's Anglophone aesthetic, thanks largely to backing contributions from members of The Band. Second Attention is the sound of another artist finding his home with a new cast of musicians, breaking away from his strong-but-derivative past, and hitting his stride. Funny (or perhaps prescient) that Toth should wait until now to rip off a classic album's cover: he sounds his most comfortable yet in his own skin here.

1. Crucifixion Pt. II
2. Portrait in the Clouds
3. Rolling One Sun Blues
4. Sweet Xiao Li
5. Hot Death
6. Mother Midnight
7. The Bleeder
8. Madonna
9. Dead Sue
10. Los Angeles Manna

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