Review Summary: The musical equivalent of smoke rings in the dark.
I’ve often fantasized about siting in a smoke filled room surrounded by people who have not only seen things, but truly experienced them as well. They are gifted with the sort of wisdom that grandchildren believe only their own grandparents possess, the kind of wisdom that is hidden from all those except those who are equipped to handle it. These are the kind of people that our younger society will always look up to, regardless of what they have, or have not, actually accomplished. And it’s within their stories that we wish to find what is truly ahead of us as we travel down the road towards adulthood. And with this storytelling, this foreboding explanation of what’s to come, we come to the sound that James Toth’s Wooden Wand has laid out before us on Blood Oaths for a New Blues.
From the first note we can tell that this isn’t going to be a straightforward lesson to learn. The bluesy guitars plod forward, mostly backed by nothing more than a small amount of reverb and the occasional percussion, towards a destination that no one is really sure that they would actually like to arrive. Yet the story has begun, and we will see it out to the end. Toth’s vocals are full of this oddly intangible feeling of knowledge, giving his words a gravitas that make him more than just a folk singer, but much rather a person who has just been around
. Occasionally songs sound overly similar, presenting a similar tapestry to yet another tale, yet they never weigh on the listener as more than a familiar comfort. To top it off, a lofty, unpinpointable atmosphere hangs over the entirety of the proceedings. It keeps us honest, at arm’s length, makes us unable to relate to his exact words and experiences more than just to feel emotional that he had to experience them in the first place.
And yet somehow through it all, Blood Oaths for a New Blues still remains an intensely personal album. While modern contemporaries within the folk genre spin stories of love and loss with vivid imagery and emotional examples, Wooden Wand keeps everything a bit vaguer. The song is used as a medium, much like a fireside story, to explain a life lesson. And it’s only those who listen carefully to the stories being told who will glean all of the precious guidance that is being provided. Only then, once you have taken these tidbits of wisdom, can you live life as the grizzled old storytellers see it best lived. As it is summed up in the final song of the album, No Debts, “No debts, no liens, no postponement of dreams… Only smooth sailing now”.