The stories are as old as the hills they come from. Robert Johnson spoke of the hellhound on his trail. Johnny Cash saw a burning ring of fire. Mark Lanegan offered whiskey to the Holy Ghost. What they and countless others have tried to relay is a vision of the great unknown. James Jackson Toth, aka Wooden Wand, has seen a few things as well. The twelve country-blues songs that make up Death Seat feature occasional embellishments, but for the most part it is just him and his guitar.
The confirmation that James lives in a strange world is evident right from the beginning. “Sleepwalking After Midnight” is a nice tune, with a melody reminiscent of “Far Away Eyes” by the Stones. The lyrics are something entirely different though. This is a love song from the real America, a broadcast from deep in the old, weird South. Get it while you can is what James is saying, because “By the light of the watercolor sun, no one will recall what they’ve done.”
From there Toth heads straight to the source in “The Mountain.” Like a desperate hill-dwelling Nick Drake, he lays out a frightening vision of what it is to be truly alone. “I know a girl, who strips and shoots, she sees the world in absolutes,” he intones and you feel that you know her too. The tale is as dark as night, as is the delivery – and utterly riveting.
Title track “Death Seat” features some gorgeous interplay between mandolin and guitar, right behind the yarn James spins from his very own perch. While the subject matter is always mysterious, even threatening at times, the effect is (mostly) alleviated by the lighter music. But on “Hotel Bar,” the haunting words are matched with a truly desolate arrangement. Even the seemingly neutral sound of a strummed guitar sounds sinister when played behind a song that opens with the words “A hotel bar in the sky, where even your honesty is full of white lies.”
The album ends with a hymn titled “Tiny Confessions” and it is a necessary moment of redemption. Death Seat is the blues as poor white folks play (and live) it. It is the album Keith Richards would sell his rotten old soul to have made.