When songwriter James Jackson Toth dropped Wooden Wand & the Vanishing Voice (his pseudonym was the first half of the band’s name) and let that unit simply dissolve into the neo-hippie ether, he created an almost unlimited sense of possibility for himself as a solo artist. That’s not to say that Toth has completely left his post-’60s ethos behind — far from it. He’s still assembling super-limited-edition CD-Rs to give away at impromptu shows and collaborating with many other artists. The hint that Toth was on his way to something else could be heard on 2007’s James and the Quiet, the final Wooden Wand offering. Issued by Ecstatic Peace, it was a deeply introspective album that, while more cohesive than anything Wooden Wand had recorded, was still a meandering cipher of a set. Released in 2008, Waiting in Vain is a 180-degree turn, produced by Steve Fisk and recorded in San Francisco with a band that includes wife Jex Thoth, Otto Hauser, Shayde Sartin, Jason Quever, and Jarvis Taveniere, along with guests including Nels Cline, Carla Bozulich, and Andy Cabic. Each and every tune here has — in comparison to anything he’s done previously — a taut, formal structure, each of them evoking some source of inspiration. For instance, the calling up of the spirit of John Lennon in “Look in on Me” is eerie for all its forlorn need. The production comes right from Lennon’s debut solo album, while the lyrics and melody are pure Toth — ambling, leisurely paced country-rock. The combination works beautifully. The combination of Neil Young and Jason Molina that saturates “Midnight Watchman,” with its blend of hollow-body electric guitars, strummed acoustics, and upright piano, is gentle, forlorn, and sweet, but the only place you know it’s Toth is in the lyrics. And if there is a problem with Waiting in Vain, this is it: too much emulation, too much paying of tributes without enough focus on getting the songs across in his voice, whether they be rockers, ballads, folk tunes, countryish rock songs, or his attempt at psych pop.
That said, Waiting in Vain is a pleasant listen; there’s plenty to like here, and despite some of its relative laid-back sloppiness, it carries within it the genuine effort of a very good songwriter who is not only trying to communicate but trying to find his way through his heroes into his own sound. Over nearly 50 minutes, however, the listener has to give Toth a generous benefit of the doubt, because it’s simply too long. This is a solid if flawed first try.