Wooden Wand Work Magic
“Let me swim and keep on swimming,” James Jackson Toth sings on “School’s Out” — the opening track of his latest album, Clipper Ship. It’s a dreamy, acoustic song that somehow conjures visions of both a tropical beach and outer space. It’s not Toth’s first foray into experimental folk. Operating under the stage name Wooden Wand, the multi-instrumentalist has been churning out enigmatic, genre-bending songs for the past 15 years. The first album in three years, Clipper Ship feels unhurried — an escape from the quicker pace of its surroundings. Although only seven songs long, Toth seems to have plenty of space for a wide variety of folk, from psychedelic to the more conventional.
Toth’s songwriting can be described as cryptic and Clipper Ship is no exception. The vaguely sorrowful track “Sacrificial” brims with lazily crooned quasi riddles and strange descriptions like, “The clouds look heavy like they’re duct taped to the sky.” He has the ability to evoke an image that is both familiar and unsettling, imbued with some intangible emotion. In “Mexican Coke,” Toth delivers the wisdom, “Where there’s a will there are ways,” while scoping out yard sales. At its core, it’s a song about determination — much like “School’s Out.” “Mallow T’ward the River” is a stripped-down, bluesy tale about the life and murder of the narrator’s uncle. One of the album’s darker tracks, it touches on themes of retribution and manages to entice the listener to sway along to what is: essentially, a death ballad.
Midway through “Only Can Love” — the longest track — vocals vanish and give way to a resplendent arrangement of trickling acoustic guitar and hypnotic reverb. It’s a departure from the eerie darkness of “Mallow T’ward the River” and sets the tone for the rest of the album, which waxes atmospheric all the way to “Mood Indica (Reprise).” Toth gives equal emphasis to the instrumentals, which shine with or without vocal accompaniment. It’s not surprising, what with talents like Jim Elkington, Wilco bassist Darin Gray and Califone’s Jim Becker on board.
Clipper Ship is a lush, psychedelic folk lullaby that may give you sweet — if not a little strange — dreams. Toth lets the instruments share the spotlight that has been reserved for lyrics in his previous albums and the result is something entirely immersive and more than just the sum of its songs.