Wooden Wand & Friends, Bird Names | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Wooden Wand & Friends, Bird Names 

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Over the past few years WOODEN WAND (aka James Toth) and a revolving cast of associates called the Vanishing Voice have put out about a dozen releases, each filled with loose amalgams of folk, blues, and electronic noise that sound like the band's lost somewhere between a catatonic trance and a psychedelic haze. It's maddeningly inconsistent music that's probably more fun to play than listen to--the songs don't progress so much as wobble forward, and Toth's more fascinated with rickety sounds than focused songcraft. But that slovenliness has earned the group a following among those freak-folk fans who can't tell the difference between beauty and bullshit. On last year's Buck Dharma (5 Rue Christine), the group layers analog-synth farts and meandering electric guitar lines over clattery bells, rattles, and what sound like chains being dragged around. Occasionally Toth or one of his cohorts sings in a forlorn moan, adding to the dark, bummed-out vibe--and even more rarely something coherent happens, like "I Am the One I Am & He Is the Caretaker of My Heart," which adds a throbbing groove to a pseudo mountain song. Toth fares better on his recent Dylan-esque solo album, Harem of the Sundrum & the Witness Figg (Soft Abuse), where his guitar and vocals glide across oil slicks of reverb. His bluesy melodies are sometimes surprisingly sweet, and overall the album's more streamlined than anything else I've heard from him. This set's billed as Wooden Wand & Friends, though, so tonight he might be rambling. --Peter Margasak

The credits to BIRD NAMES' debut album, Fantic Yard (Heavy Medley), explain that it was mostly recorded in an empty office building in Skokie, but it's so no-fi that the location hardly matters--I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that it was recorded in a men's room stall at the United Center, or underwater. That's part of the charm of the 18-track disc, which is one of the brightest products of Chicago's art-damage scene in some time; the quintet puts a no-wave sleeper hold on chiming, lilting, innocent pop (think later Unrest, or the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"), chokes it to death with a slew of skittering, rattling instruments, and throws in la-la-la lines like "Hair! Hair! / Hair! / He talks to the governor's hair!" The band switches instruments on nearly every song, and all five members are credited with percussion; sometimes they sound noisy and clumsy, like a high school marching band banished to purgatory, and other times they're serving up artless, synthy naif-rock. The sublime "Pinatata" is a twinkling-bells narrative about a pinata party ("The pinata / Is full of candy / Candy candy candy / Sweet delicious candy / They hang it from a tree / Then they blindfold me / Smash!") full of reverbed pennywhistles layered over Naomi Caffee's mantralike kid-whisper vocals. Judging by the live track on the album, their pure charm and musical shamblings make it to the stage intact. --Jessica Hopper

Wooden Wand & Friends headline, Bird Names play second, and Death Ships open. Mon 1/16, 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401. Free.

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