Farmer’s Corner, the latest release from singer/songwriter James Jackson Toth (under the pseudonym Wooden Wand), was recorded on his travels and showcases nine new songs from six sessions in four studios in three different states with a range of musicians, although electric bassist Darin Gray, and guitarists William Tyler and Doc Feldman were fairly constant sidemen in the process. Despite – or perhaps because of – this refusal to conform to accepted music industry norms, the result is a set which combines a looseness of feeling with a unified sound which crosses many musical boundaries without ever losing its focus.
Alpha Dawn opens in a haze of electronic bleeps and squeals but quickly settles into a loping country groove complete with banjo and pedal steel guitar behind Toth’s introspective lyric about new beginnings. Uneasy Peace continues the soul-searching Americana vibe with a low-key, lonesome twelve-bar blues, although any purists minded to quibble about the inclusion of heavily-treated electric guitars may find themselves knocked out of their rocking chairs by the thunderous string bass.
The minor-to-major modulation of When The Trail Goes Cold paints an entirely different picture; it’s a sweet and dreamy uptempo love song which sounds as good in the slow hours of a sleepless night as it does in the afternoon sun. By contrast, the riff-driven Adie comes out fighting, its harmony vocals, curiously, call to mind the late lamented JJ Cale in one of his rockier moments but the lead guitar sounds as if it would cut you like a knife as soon as look at you.
In his review a couple of weeks back, Alex said lead single Dambuilding was “music to watch the sun go down at the end of long summer day” and I can’t fault that description; strummed acoustic guitars keep this breezy reflection on life’s little foibles on course as a keening pedal steel guitar shines like a fragment of broken mirror caught by the evening sun. A definite highlight.
Sinking Feelings is a bittersweet, four-square country song whose vocal delivery and wheezy harmonica carry echoes of Bob Dylan but its middle eight is stunning, an intricate sequence of descending chords which wends its way to an emphatic major seventh before kicking back into the main progression as bright harmony guitars leap like salmon heading upstream. The more laidback Home Horizon follows, a slow-burning acoustic number about being “home and horizon bound” which gives the pedal steel guitar its moment in the sun. The sense of world-weariness in the lyrics is almost palpable: “these are unrecycled days”, indeed.
The tempo picks up again for Port Of Call, an insistently steady rocker with distant, distorted guitars which break loose around the three-minute mark; it has a motorik groove reminiscent of early Neu! which coalesces into some tight guitar/bass riffing and makes for an interesting juxtaposition with some of the other material on the album. Closing track Gone To Stay returns to a more overtly country blues feel with a banjo swagger that lets you know its got its eye on you. This is a song that’s been led astray by Howlin’ Wolf and doesn’t care who knows it: it isn’t afraid to pay its dues.
Wooden Wand has crafted an album of style and substance with heart and soul; it covers a huge amount of ground but never at the expense of the integrity of its content, either musically or lyrically. Farmer’s Corner is a fine record in every respect and already a contender for one of my albums of the year.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Farmer’s Corner is out May 6 on Fire Records