James Jackson Toth is gathering something of a cult following as his prolific output begins to make its own kind of sense. He is equally comfortable as a songwriter and in an improvised context with his Vanishing Voice project. In his sleeve notes for Death Seat, Swans man and Young God label boss Michael Gira certainly does not hold back in his praise for Toth: “It’s clear to me that Toth is animated with the same spirit that’s passed through Willie, Waylon, Merle and Hank.”
Gira’s words are clearly hyperbole, but there is more than a hint of outlaw country in these rambling, allusive songs. Also detectable is some of the mystery and power of mid-seventies Bob Dylan, not least in the occasional interjection of raw harmonica. Yet all these traditional influences also seem filtered through the American gothic of more modern songwriters such as Mark Linkous or Vic Chesnutt, particularly on the title track.
Death Seat returns to the country-tinged songwriting that animated previous albums such as James And The Quiet. Although the songs here are often reduced to spare, minimal elements – often built on the strong foundations of Toth’s basic but emphatic acoustic guitar strumming – there’s the sense that they may actually be less stark and more nuanced. There’s a peculiar warmth in the chiming vocal harmonies and pedal steel guitar of the opening Sleepwalking After Midnight. Toth’s biting vocal twang is considerably softened by the company around him and the results are both engaging and satisfying.
Many of Toth’s compositions are sprawling and unwieldy and require time and close attention to unpick. There are vivid characters who disappear as quickly as they arrive, such as the girl who “sees the world in absolutes” in The Mountain. Servant To Blues is ghostly and mysterious – somehow at once thin and powerful. Ms Mowse is even denser, full with imaginative, striking imagery. Toth’s words are vivid enough to suggest the influence of empirical observations – but are weird enough to be the work of a powerful and original imagination.
For all the directness of the simple chords and skeletal melodies, Toth’s arrangements also have a certain intelligence and intricacy. On The Mountain, Toth is restrained enough to resist the urge for an explosion of electricity and colour, but the change in texture provided by mandolin and percussion is significant and unexpected. The quiet drones that underpin Servant To Blues add tension that is brilliantly punctured by big organ chords. With its imposing wah-wah guitar and near-buried chanting, it is reminiscent of Spiritualized at their best.
Toth combines his gothic streak with a more immediate and endearing charm on ballads such as Bobby. There’s a strong sense of compassion and empathy in its central plea: “Oh Bobby, don’t mortgage your young life this way.” Emotions are rarely simple with Toth, however. I Want To Make A Difference In Your Life is so sincere as to seem painful and obsessive.
This may be Toth’s strongest and most immediately engaging work so far. As ever with an artist as untamed as Toth, it’s far from a complete picture. Also released at the same time is the brilliantly titled limited edition set Wither Thou Goest, Cretin, which apparently captures Toth in a rawer mode. Still, with Death Seat, he has added warmth and detail without compromising what remains a strong personal voice.