James Toth—aka Wooden Wand Jehovah—wishes he were a carpenter. Because if he were a carpenter, perhaps no one would question his motives, prune his lyrics for insight, or second-guess his impressive productivity.
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"Nobody ever asks a carpenter why he goes to work every day," Toth offers. "That's what he does. He's supposed to work every day. So, why wouldn't I go to work every day, too? I guess I came from a family with a pretty solid work ethic, so I can't help it. I like working. I mean, I'd like to be really good at other things, but it just so happens I'm good at writing songs. That's just the one thing I'm good at, so I might as well work every day at it."
Toth, 28, has a massive catalog for someone so young. Whether it be 45-minute albums of tribal freakouts as Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice (Gipsy Freedom, Buck Dharma), or whispery solo folk (Harem of the Sundrum and the Witness Figg)—it's obvious he's possessed of a superhuman work ethic.
"I've had so many people talk so much about how I put out too many records and how they can't keep up with all of it," he says. "To which I say, 'Nobody said you have to buy everything I do.' You don't have to buy every 7-inch or every CD-R or album if you don't want to."
But if Toth were a layman, he would by no means have the freedom to embark on such creative leaps, bending and reshaping his style to fit his fancy. And for his latest, Second Attention, he has made his most song-oriented album to date.
Recorded with the Sky High Band (a crack ensemble featuring Glenn Donaldson and Shayde Sartin of the hazy California psych-pop outfit the Skygreen Leopards) on mostly vintage equipment, Second Attention is a folk-rock album in the most classic sense of the term. From the opening acoustic strum and Toth's nasally cry of "You're knee deep in some sin/And your cavalry has thinned," it's apparent this record was woven from the same fabric as Bob Dylan's or Townes Van Zandt's dark, internal searching.
But Toth counters the moroseness of the lyrics with a stoner vibe. With most songs built heavily out of primitive guitar strums and tambourine shakes, the whole affair sounds akin to an after-hours party in which the shy but talented songwriter gets baked enough to let go of his inhibitions. Unlike most of Toth's previous work, the vocals are front and center, often sung in a twisted Southern drawl and rife with Appalachian/biblical imagery—fed through just enough psychedelic echo effects to sound downright creepy. Very much a lyric and melody album, Second Attention delivers some heavy lines for our brains to chew on. "Paid off all the spirits/And they lifted up the curse," he sneers on "Sweet Xiao Li," while on "Portrait in the Clouds," he delves into nursery-rhyme complexities: "To Mother of Pearl/And her little girl Pearl/And the husband/Of Mother of Pearl/Who is the Father of Pearl/Who is the daughter of the father/Of the husband/Of Mother of Pearl."
Of the many merits of Second Attention, however, keystone track "Mother Midnight" is a goddamn masterpiece, a song that, like the best of Dylan and Van Zandt, punctures your flesh and manifests itself in your bloodstream. The imagery here is some of the finest he has ever summoned: "Low flying clouds/Over white ruby falls/Repeated in patterns/Like fat paper dolls." You could spend years dissecting the meaning behind lyrics like "This is the way I like you best in the world/Straw-headed white like a tired little girl" and "In a sand-covered city that smells of perfume/An angel persuades you to give up your room."
But it's the guitar solos that really glue the album together. Fed through some ancient-sounding amplifier, his licks are superbly fuzzed and positively set the old tubes on fire with their psychedelic glow.
The undiscerning ear will no doubt hear too much Dylan or Kris Kristofferson in Toth's vibrant imagery, breath control, and simple plucking, but it would be unfair to classify Second Attention as a derivative album.
"Somebody once told me that you only really like 10 records in your life," says Toth. "Every other record you buy after that somehow sounds like those records. So, yeah, I like Dylan and listen to him all the time. It would be pretty impossible for me not to pick up a little influence along the way."