Under the name Wooden Wand, Tennessee singer-songwriter James Jackson Toth has been a veritable music-making machine, releasing several dozen albums in all formats since the early 2000s. One of freak-folk’s traveling bards, if you’ll permit the term, Toth has raided that scene’s big circus tent for his band–basically a shifting coterie of friends–and produced hazy, gnarled folk-rock of varying degrees of obscurity.

His self-editing skills are on par with Lou Barlow’s in Sebadoh–it seems he’s never recorded a note that he found unworthy of release–but despite this obvious lack of quality control, Toth can write a solid tune when the stars are aligned. Over the past few years a more straightforwardly melodic side of his musical personality has emerged, and now he’s embraced it, putting the Wooden Wand handle on ice and releasing his first album under his real name.

Though he claims that his approach the new Waiting in Vain (Rykodisc), produced by Steve Fisk, was “to plug in and see what happens,” the result is much more polished, conventional, and focused than any of his previous efforts; the psychedelic crust has been largely washed away, leaving something that sounds a lot like poppy, folky 70s rock. This may not sound like good news, but the change registers as a significant leap forward. Toth is investing more energy in his dolorous singing, and working with a tight, steady band and guests like Nels Cline, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic, and Carla Bozulich, he summons a bit of country soul on the pretty “Doreen” and evokes solo John Lennon with the narcotic crawl of “Look in on Me.” He’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s good that he realized his songs deserved more respect than Wooden Wand’s bric-a-brac approach afforded them.

Toth and his band play Wednesday night at Schubas.

Today’s playlist:

Dieb 13, Jason Kahn, Günter Müller, Streaming (4 for Ears)
Brian Eno & Harold Budd, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (Astralwerks)
Keith Rowe & Burkhard Beins, Keith Rowe & Burkhard Beins (ErstLive)
Arditti String Quartet, Horatiu Radulsecu, Streichquartett No. 4 Opus 33 (Edition RZ)
Skyphone, Avellaneda (Rune Grammofon)