Last December, NPR's music blog ran an essay titled "That's a Bad Lyric and You Know It." In it, writer James Jackson Toth (who releases music under the name Wooden Wand) calls out songs by several contemporary acts, including Best Coast, Haim and The Black Keys: "I don't know the writers of these songs personally, but I am positive they can do better because almost anybody could," he writes. He ultimately blames overly permissive music criticism. "I don't believe these lyrics are the products of trivial, impoverished minds," he writes, "but of thoughtful, intelligent people who, fearless of critical castigation, just don't give a damn."
"It just sorta bugs me when people don't try," Toth explains via phone, from his current hometown of Lexington, Ky. "Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins — I still like those bands, [and] they wrote some horrible lyrics. The difference is they were trying to write good lyrics. You listen to ‘Disarmed' by Smashing Pumpkins; it's not a very strong song lyrically. I feel like there was a sense of profundity that they were reaching for and just failing to grasp."
"I just think at a time where it's really difficult to get people to pay attention to anything, it's sort of important, if you have a mouthpiece to say something of value, to communicate something," he adds. "It doesn't have to be political or especially personal, but say something that's gonna change somebody's day. Or their life."
It's one goal, but not the only one, that Toth aims for in his own songwriting. "Lyrics are really important to me," he says. "I wouldn't say they're more important than anything else. Maybe when I was younger, I believed that, and I think some of the music I made when I was younger suffers as a result."
Wooden Wand songs are evocatively specific in their lyrics and timbre, and their twists repay your attention. He avoids the trap of solipsistic blandness that so much contemporary Americana music falls into — maybe because of the broad range of his own musical tastes.
"I don't sit at home and listen to Townes Van Zandt or Dylan," Toth says. "I love that stuff. It's part of my DNA. But I try to avoid that stuff as much as possible. I try to listen to things that couldn't possibly influence, for lack of a better descriptor, singer-songwriter music."
Wooden Wand's music may turn out folky, like 2014's Farmer's Corner, or take the form of a sludgey, psychedelic freakout like 2013's Wooden Wand and the World War IV, but there's always nuance. A turn of lyrical or musical phrase, a resigned wink, a reminder: James Jackson Toth has a sense of humor. He may be ironic, but he's never superior; world-weariness comes from being of the world, not above it.
"I get tired of being described as this real dark dude," he says. "When I have my existential crises I start thinking, ‘Maybe I'm just not funny,' because I really am trying, not to sell a joke, but to temper these things with silver linings."