Whilst it was often fun to hear James Jackson Toth fully let rip a pent-up desire to fuse Springsteen with Crazy Horse on his last ‘official’ Wooden Wand album – 2011’s Briarwood - some of us perhaps preferred the album’s more subtle stripped-down demos appended to the briefly available deluxe edition, wherein the unvarnished songs revealed even greater emotional depth. Not that we should ever affix a specification of what a Wooden Wand record should sound like however, given how amorphously shape-shifting the band has been over its prolific existence, yet the aesthetics of certain records in the vast discography certainly fit JTT’s muse better than others. Happily, Blood Oaths Of The New Blues is one of those records.
Very much the ying to the yang of Briarwood, this new 8-track long-player could be considered as the Sunday morning comedown to its formal predecessor’s Saturday night bravado. Yet Blood Oaths is not a straightforward unplugged riposte to the swaggering Americana grunge of Briarwood. Instead, it’s a more understated, more spacious and earthier record. No better is the overall mood and texture set than on the stunning eleven minute opening medley of “No Bed For The Beatle Wand / Days This Long,” wherein JJT gracefully intones a drawn-out meditative monologue over quiet tremulous guitars, sparse percussion and harmonium, as if it were a lost long collaboration between Lambchop circa Is A Woman and Summer Sun-era Yo La Tengo (which is not so fanciful a thing to imagine given the past intermingling of the two bands). After such a strong start the album sustains the mournful yet elevating mood in varying forms.
Hence, with the lengthy electro-acoustic unpeeling of “Outsider Blues” the comedown continues but not self-pityingly; the ensuing instrumental “Dome Community People (Are Good People)” adds some gritty guitar volume but more to conjure an interluding atmosphere; the gorgeous harmony-bolstered space-folk of “Dungeons Of Irons” brings in a lighter redemptive tone which is extended via the more country-twanging “Supermoon (The Sounding Line)”; the dark slow chug of “Southern Colorado Song” darkens the ambience again but re-finds beauty through some gorgeous backing vocals; the murky yet warm “Jhonn Balance” brings in a hymnal quality; and the closing “No Debts” finds JTT back in solo acoustic troubadour mode with an uplifting forward-looking message ready for a more positive road head.
No doubt by the time you read this yet another Wooden Wand release will already have been announced but that shouldn’t distract from concentrating some time on Blood Oaths Of The New Blues. For although it may lack some instantaneous inroads (like say the sublime soaring “Winter In Kentucky” on Briarwood) it more than makes up for it with diligent craftsmanship, self-challenging invention and well-scripted songwriting that stretches as well as honours the album as a storytelling art form still worth saving.
Listen to “Southern Colorado Song” at Soundcloud.
(Release Note: Blood Oaths Of The New Blues is officially released in early-January but is available before Xmas to buyers pre-ordering direct from Fire Records.)