WOODEN WAND opening for JOHN VANDERSLICE with the KNIFINGS at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (April 21), 9 pm. $9. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
There exists a well-cultivated mystique surrounding the delightfully demented psych recordings of Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, thanks to members who record and perform under various aliases, preferring to keep what they do shrouded in secrecy.
But even by their own myth-making standards, the new Wooden Wand solo recording, Harem Of The Sundrum & The Witness Figg (5rc) is an enigmatic marvel designed to look and sound like a limited-run freakfolk artifact recorded by some stoner loner in a wooded hideaway.
Apparently, that's not too far off the mark.
"When I first moved from New York City to Tennessee a while ago," recalls the man who prefers to be called Wooden Wand although the local Knoxville authorities know him as James Toth, "one of the first things I did was to get some things onto tape. That relatively tranquil environment definitely had something to do with the sound of the recordings that wound up on Harem Of The Sundrum & The Witness Figg.
"I've listened to a lot of private-press folk and psych albums and a lot of old blues recordings, so the idea was to get back to that style of rudimentary documentation where you get down the essence of the song without fussing about overdubs and getting every little bit exactly right."
Whatever he did, it worked. The vaguely Biblical allegories whispered by Wooden Wand over a prison-cell strum that make up the Harem disc definitely have that unsettling air of quiet desperation typical of the genre's classics. A couple of Wooden Wand's tunes, specifically Spiritual Inmate and Babylon The Great, Pt. 3, wouldn't sound out of place on Gary Higgins's cult fave Red Hash, recently reissued by Drag City.
"Oh yeah, I love that Red Hash album! That's definitely a cool record. I know what you mean about the whole outsider vibe of those records. They sound like they're made by guys who spend a lot of time walking the halls and making plans, big plans."
Perhaps the only difference between Harem Of The Sundrum & The Witness Figg and the privately pressed LPs from the early 70s like Higgins's Red Hash and other similarly bent offerings I've picked up over the years is that the genuine articles usually come with more information on the sleeve about the artist, participating musicians and the compositions than Wooden Wand provides.
With Harem, all you get with the distraught-looking portrait of someone who could be Wooden Wand are some suitably oblique song titles like (Ask A) Sufist Chef and Eagle Claw, a brief dedication, layout credit and the label's post office box address.
"That was done intentionally. I felt the less information given, the better. That way, the listener would have to focus more on the music. Unfortunately, with the Internet anyone can Google an artist now and find out everything they ever wanted to know about them. All the mystery is gone. When you're left to draw your own conclusions about a song and the person who wrote it, you always come up with something weirder and cooler than the real story.
"I still can't think of Neil Young as a person who eats food or of Bob Dylan as someone who goes to the bathroom nor do I want to. In the same way, I hope people will look at the sleeve of my new disc and just assume everything was done by Wooden Wand."
While everyone else may be all about keeping it real, Wooden Wand understands the importance of maintaining the mythical.
"I guess I'm just one of those people who really appreciates anyone who goes the distance to try and create a persona and a whole mythology that goes along with it. I think rock music at its best is open to interpretation, where no view is right or wrong. The more information you know about the artist just takes away from that experience."