James And The Giants “James And The Giants”

Kill Rock Stars Nashville, 2023

20 years and counting into his career, free folk veteran James Toth keeps on raising his game.

“Eyes don’t ever sparkle and the moon is never blue
And no one ever cried a river.
Hearts are never broken, blood don’t ever boil.”

So sings prolific underground artist and New Weird America veteran James Toth on ‘Don’t Let Love Make a Liar Out of You’, on his latest lp, ‘James And the Giants’, one of the album’s multiple moments of mildly subversive brilliance that is simultaneously both fun and compelling to hear. And also a tad surprising.

That’s because artists associated with the freak folk and psychedelia genres like Toth always seem to make a point of swimming against the tide. But on this occasion Toth makes the album’s unifying factor for its ten tracks a kind of kicking back against the well-established idea amidst radical and conservative musicians alike that, at least in lyrics, everything has to be taken to extremes no matter how clichéd that sounds: hearts are truly broken, people cry rivers, etc etc.

Rather than blaze a trail to emotional and intellectual frontiers come hell or high water, as he argues on another song, ‘Friends Forever’, “If you limit your options, you’ll make the most of your time.” Or as he puts it on ‘Don’t Let Love Make A Liar Out of You’, “The stars don’t twinkle any more than comets do.” In other words, he’s quietly indicating that getting a full perspective on whatever happens to you and not turning it into a major melodrama isn’t always such a bad idea.

Clearly keen to practice what he preaches about less being more, all of the ten tracks on ‘James And the Giants‘  – selected from over two decades worth of composing and which took several years to record – are catchy, unpretentious melodies that don’t push the boat out too far. Rather the production, masterminded by longstanding collaborator Jarvis Taveniere, packs the kind of practiced gentle but insistent aural punch that you’d expect a master of free-thinking folk and Americana, drawing you artlessly into a world of surreal imagery and soulful, not too threatening, soundscapes.

Using musicians from different eras of his longstanding band, Wooden Wand,  Toth says – according to the bumpf provided by the record company that the recording of ‘James And The Giants’ “had all been like an accidental “This Is Your Life.” I was bringing people together from my history and writing songs that deal with owning up to things, coming to terms with things, reckoning with the past.”

That reckoning can be very humourous – the opening track, ‘I Wanna Go Down To The Basement’ is about what would happen if the character from The Ramones classic number ‘I Don’t Want Go Down To the Basement’ had – to quote Toth – “done some immersion therapy and realised it wasn’t so bad.” (It’s not just the basement that gets the ‘not overstressing’ treatment, later in the same song, there’s an even more laconic verse about how the narrator “went out in the storm, but not to see the rain, I went out in the storm just to close my baby’s window, she’d left it open.”) Then there are some very tender moments, like ‘All Time Girl’, all about how to wait a thousand years to get the love of your life – although the track’s relaxed, sing-along chorus is once again making the album’s delight in defusing any kind of potential tension by getting a sense of perspective. Or to take another very wise line from ‘Forever Friends’:

“I never did believe in friends forever
But I do believe that I’lI always remember
All the more reason to enjoy this time together.”

It’s tempting to think this album is long on philosophy and short on musical interest, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, by placing these kinds of sagely grown-up observations in what is a really tuneful but laidback blast of Americana shot through with folk and soul, Toth’s created an album that’s both thoughtful and addictively engaging to listen to. So the moon might not be blue and friends might not be forever, but you don’t want to miss out on catching up with this album regardless.


About Alasdair Fotheringham 63 Articles
Alasdair Fotheringham is a freelance journalist based in Spain, where he has lived since 1992, writing mainly on current affairs and sport.
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