Most people would have you believe that James Toth, the mastermind behind Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice and self-proclaimed Wooden Wand Jehovah, is a mere disciple of the Devendra Banhart-led freak-folk movement -- a forgotten Wizz Jones to Banhart's widely celebrated Donovan. However, closer inspection reveals that Toth, alongside a rotating cast of musicians, martyrs and madmen, has been operating in the acid folk underground for years, and has already amassed a massive discography of CDRs, limited edition LPs and seven-inches on a host of mega-obscure labels, including his own Polyamory imprint. So while Banhart might be freak folk's golden poster boy, Wooden Wand was there first, making his mark one bowlegged, hiss-drenched nugget of shamanic folk at a time.
Like Frank Zappa or John Fahey, Toth never seems to stop recording, which means that the task of assembling a complete WW&VV discography will require someone with the patience of a Benedictine monk and the investigative skills of a Scotland Yard pro. Only recently have the group's recordings surfaced, first with a reissue of XIAO on TMU, and now their first effort for new outlet 5RC. Buck Dharma's scary, sandblasted minimalism could well soundtrack reclusive, nomadic author Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, so spiritual is its behest. Indeed, so bleak and unforgiving are its aural landscapes that it often feels like an endless trek through harsh desert winds in search of a treasure that no-one is even certain exists.
Unearthing riches where none were thought to exist is part of the existential joy of WW&VV's work. The band's clipped, sliced and truncated take on gospel, soul, folk and bluegrass is a stirring, sometimes unsettling stew of distant voices and lingering ghosts, a dance party at dusk where John Cage and Harry Smith regale the punters with field recordings of brimstone bubbling over and angels saying prayers to themselves. Toth's voice is a strange creature in itself, pitched somewhere between Lou Reed and Ozzy Osbourne; he drawls so fervently about the finality of sinners on "Rot On" that you'd swear it was his own soul that was up for grabs. "Satya Sai Scupetty Plays 'Reverse Jam Band'" rattles around like the Holy Ghost in an episode of Scooby Doo, all manner of oscillating drones and earthy tones swarming around the clatter like fireflies.
If Buck Dharma has a central theme, it's isolation, both as it relates to our dealings with others, and to our own standing in the spiritual realm. Though it isn't always readily apparent among the clatter and clutter, the quest for a spiritual center is a defining facet in all of WW&VV's work, and Buck Dharma is certainly no exception. Though Toth and his assembled players don't get any closer to the promised land than they have in previous incarnations, for now, at least, the journey itself is rewarding enough. Devendra Banhart might have the tattered heart of the free-folk revival wrapped around his spindly finger, but Toth and the Vanishing Voice have its essence embedded in their every movement, and no amount of media attention will change that.