Wooden Wand

James & the Quiet (Ecstatic Peace)

The words of James Jackson Toth rarely make sense. Unlike Dylan, who intertwines avant-garde poetry and traditional narrative, Toth (aka Wooden Wand) deals in mystical abstraction and hermetic metaphor almost exclusively. But that's cool. It's fun just getting lost in the dude's gnarled wordplay. "His chief 'mong the charges/His high treason to the crown of the cadavers," he croaks on "Blessed Damnation," off his third and latest disc, James & the Quiet.

Toth's music, however, is a problem. James, produced by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, is a stripped-down folk-rock album, one gazing directly upon Toth's leaden croon. But the guy can't sing; he makes Kris Kristofferson sound like Mario Lanza.

To remove some of the weight resting upon Toth's shoulders, Ranaldo should've nestled his sing 'n' strum inside multilayered arrangements and kaleidoscopic production, something the Wand is obviously capable of. The version of "The Pushers" from the live disc Wooden Wand & the Sky High Band, From the Road Vol. 7 features brooding organ and searing axework. It blows away the austere version that opens James.

It takes guts for an artist to exhibit his limitations. But it doesn't change the fact that after three songs, James & the Quiet is a total slog.