Artists On Albums: AOA#25 (Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth on No Silver/No Gold)

Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth on…

The Baptist Generals’ No Silver/No Gold (Sub Pop, 2003)

The Baptist Generals - No Silver/No Gold

No Silver/No Gold is the best album Sub Pop ever released. It is a perfect American record, and a huge inspiration.

I don’t remember how I heard about Baptist Generals, but I was on board pretty early. I think the album was in a crate of CDs that no one at the college radio station knew what to do with and I grabbed it under the auspices of ‘reviewing’ it (my copy still has ‘WPUR’ written across the disc face and booklet in black marker). The first thing that struck me about the record was the raw humanity of opening song “Ay, Distress.” Assisted by a mournful cello, the tune is a yearning, unhurried lullaby, ragged and uncomfortable enough even before its shocking conclusion, when a cell phone starts ringing. Perhaps this interrupts the mood, but it does not break the spell. Singer Chris Flemmons, incensed by the interruption, screams “Goddammit!” and then “Oh, GOD!” A calm voice reminds Flemmons to stop the tape. Flemmons screams “Fuck!” and then something – a chair, possibly a guitar – is slammed against something else, while the expletives continue. The calmer, consoling voice tries to diffuse the situation – “Hey, hey, hey, it’s OK” – but Flemmons is having none of it. He is understandably frustrated, and some unfortunate objects receive a doin’ as a result. Something in the calm of the other voice reveals that this is something that probably happens all the time. What an opener!

From this auspicious beginning comes “Alcohol (Turn and Fall),” perhaps the only song dealing with the too-ubiquitous subject of consumption that actually suggests the revelry and raucousness of actual drunkenness, Replacements bootlegs notwithstanding. Over a skittering, bashed-out 5/4 time signature, a guitar part owing as much to Hubert Sumlin as it does The Fall (as it does the Mission: Impossible theme), and a bricolage of acoustic debris, Flemmons broadcasts his pie-eyed, pleading ode. He is disquiet personified. The song is at once blues, country, folk and punk, while adhering to the restrictive signifiers of none of these.

The album’s best song, and one of my favorite songs of all time, is the devastating “Going Back Song.” Ostensibly a blues about lost love, the song expertly crystallizes the moment between denial and acceptance: “Darling, have you found your love? / Darling, have you found your love? / Does it feel as if you’re floating? / Does it slow down in your blood?” Jesus Christ.

A friend tells a story of auditioning to drum for the Generals during their pre-Sub Pop days and being told, impossibly, to call back when he had some “chops.”

No Silver/No Gold is an exercise in opposites. It’s as raw as anything AmRep ever released, though the instrumentation is largely acoustic. It’s as charming and homespun as early Palace Brothers, but it’s loud, ornery and abrasive. It’s as impenetrable and joyfully unmusical as Jandek, but its players demand their members possess “chops.” Such is the duality of No Silver/No Gold. There is a waggish, self-aware quality that lurks beneath the orneriness and not-exactly-quiet desperation. Magic and loss. (See also: Souled American).

The Baptist Generals have been threatening to follow up No Silver/No Gold for years, but nothing has materialized. Perhaps it never will. But like Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Flemmons knows, probably, that his reputation is secure with this one masterpiece, and that oughta be enough. The comparison to Neutral Milk Hotel is appropriate in another way, too: No Silver/No Gold is Magnum’s oft-celebrated and universally lauded In The Aeroplane Over The Sea divorced from its precious, life-affirming lysergia, opting instead for sinister ambience, homicidal frustration, and real talk. I mean, the man wrote a song called “Raw From Self Destruction,” for goodness sakes. Real talk.

Notes On The Artist:

James Jackson Toth

As a prolific purveyor of amorphous Americana, James Jackson Toth is one of those cult artists just waiting to be more widely adored.  Relentlessly releasing material since the early-2000s, via DIY means and across a slew of respectable labels (including Ecstatic Peace!, Kill Rock Stars, Young God Records, People In A Position To Know, Critical Heights, The Great Pop Supplement and Fire Records), trading under different monikers (his own name, Wand and Wooden Wand) and sometimes accompanied by a variety of specially-assembled backing bands (Vanishing Voice, The Quiet, The Sky High Band, Omens Bone Band, The Briarwood Virgins et al.) built from players borrowed from Sonic Youth, Lambchop and elsewhere, Toth has a backstory and collaborative wanderlust to make Will Oldham envious.

Whilst his vast body of work can appear daunting, Toth has stumbled into an accessible rewarding purple-patch over the last year, through a split-single with Owen Tromans, the stripped-down vinyl-only My Week Beats Your Year album, the skewed country-rock of the long-playing Briarwood and the remarkable 6LP lo-fi closet-clearing Archives Vol. 3 collection.

With an expanded, acoustic demos-appended, edition of Briarwood on the horizon, along with US and UK touring, 2012 already seems like another busy year for James Jackson Toth.

Wooden Wand & The Briarwood Virgins – “Big Mouth USA” (from 2011’s Briarwood)

Wooden Wand – “Ms Mouwse” (from 2010’s Death Seat)