James Jackson Toth: Waiting In Vain

By: Dennis Cook

There's base level satisfaction to someone who can write great songs and deliver them with skill and some imagination. Rocks' singer-songwriter sub-genre is well established, and if the template set by Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, et al. remains the yardstick most measure newcomers by then James Jackson Toth has all the length and width one could want. The artist formerly known as Wooden Wand hits his most winning stretch yet on Waiting In Vain (Rykodisc), a dozen carefully turned jewels that send us shuffling away from the grave and reorients us towards greener fields that may (or may not) await us just over the hill, enticing us with a knowing smile that acknowledges hope is an idea that doesn't always hold water but is always worth carrying anyway.

From ooh-aah-ing handclappers like "The Banquet Styx" and "Beulah The Good" to a snarling meditation like "Becoming Faust" to unguardedly tender moments like "Look In On Me," this album has all the markings of great nuts 'n' bolts songwriting, the type of tunes one excitedly shares with friends or keeps in ready reserve to dispel crappy days or accent good ones. Toth isn't really a happy fella but he's found a few pathways to places where "nothing hides the thing that gets you loose." The troubles he's seen remain disturbingly present but he's found a few tools for exorcising his demons and shares them with us here. Like fellow travelers Conor Oberst and Gary Louris, Toth draws from the long tradition of popular song, pulling in bits of '60s soul, unrepentant garage rock and the aforementioned foundational artists. The end product is both deeply personal and unforced, general appeal goodness.

Producer Steve Fisk, the former Pell Mell member and knob turner for Nirvana, Soundgarden and many other names you know, assembled a great ensemble that includes Vetiver's Otto Hauser (drums, vibes) and Andy Cabic (vocals), guitar great Nels Cline and his former Geraldine Fibbers foil Carla Bozulich (vocals) and Fisk himself on keyboards. Throughout, Toth's spouse Jexie Lynn Toth is the Emmylou to his 21st century Gram, the Linda to his inner John Martyn, the other half to the dangling heart pendant in his larynx. It's often her sighs and be-boppin' accents that snag one's ear as you're swept up by Waiting In Vain. This oozes quality and intelligent design, creating the record Toth has been lurching towards in his bedraggled, willfully independent way for some time. In dropping the pseudonym and fully embracing his talents, he runs into any arms that'll have him, dumping conscious distance and smarty oddness in favor of music that warms our hearth and cheers our cockles.

Here's the video for "Doreen" with a bit of the softer side of Waiting In Vain.

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[Published on: 10/10/08]

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