Coming off the ragged roots rock fury of 2011's Briarwood, the ever-prolific James Jackson Toth, aka Wooden Wand, drops the volume and gets deeper into his own skull, twisting through barebones personal stories and conceptual Americana head trips on the sprawling Blood Oaths of the New Blues. Toth has tried on lots of different outfits over the course of Wooden Wand's various incarnations, and Blood Oaths recalls the somber isolation and pastoral moodiness of the earliest solo recordings. While Toth is ably backed by the same band that made Briarwood such a high-powered affair, his brooding story-song lyrics and gruff vocal presence are the central focus of every track. Opening with the nearly 12-minute suite "No Bed for Beatle Wand/Days This Long," the album oozes into being, with Toth drawing out soft verses of devotion over a ghostly, repetitive chord progression that drones into the song's second half. "Outsider Blues" tells an involved tale of two lovers on a psychedelic road trip to a blues festival, with mundane details about the start of the trip turning into a mid-level existential crisis. Spiritual weariness melding with everyday scenes comes up a few times, with references to near death experiences and stopping at Walmart appearing in the same song. Janet Simpson mirrors Toth's haunted vocals on "Supermoon (The Sounding Line)," and her pedal steel contributions to the song drag its borderline suicidal lyrics out of the spotlight, leaving a deceptively happy musical shell around what might be the album's darkest topical moments. Even in its hopeful segments, there's a spookiness that defines the album. Toth said in interviews he wanted to make a record like the ones that freaked him out as an isolated teenager, experimenting with psychedelics and listening to King Diamond in the solitude of his bedroom. While it's not quite as devilish as that, subliminal noise and evil-sounding voices low in the mix wander in and out of the songs, imbuing them with similarly freaky touches. Somewhere between the middle-class desperation of Springsteen's Nebraska, Vic Chestnutt's unmistakable sadness, and the most hushed and confessional moments of Neil Young's Zuma, Blood Oaths finds its niche. Though it's more of a crushed lament than a freaked-out bad trip, the most honest sentiments are often the scariest parts of Toth's songs. Spare guitar and straightforward vocals on "No Debts" bring the album to an abrupt close, wrapping up one of the most direct and personal chapters of an artist who's come at his craft from an array of different costume changes. Blood Oaths is perhaps the closest to plainclothes Wooden Wand has come.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas