M. Ward

by Thomas Bartlett

29 April 2003


I got ahold of M. Ward’s Transfigurations of Vincent a few weeks ago, and loved it immediately. Delicate, John Fahey-inspired guitar playing joined by touches of piano and crickets, all with a warm around-the-campfire sort of feeling. Songs that, while occasionally veering in suspiciously cutesy directions, were for the most part beautifully and cleverly written. But most of all, a truly extraordinary voice. Ward’s voice has been too often compared to Tom Waits for me to ignore its passing similarity to the glorious hoarseness of that gruff-voiced deity. But there in equal measure is the flip side of the coin, the honeyed tones of Harry Nilsson. Whatever the case, it is a very unusual voice, and one with a good deal of depth and wisdom to it, which is why I had, without really thinking about it, placed Ward in his late 30s or early 40s.

I was a little taken aback when a gangly, floppy sort of guy, who I guessed was in his late teens or early 20s, walked on stage. (Upon doing some research after the concert, I was again surprised to find that this boy with a world class slouch was in fact 28 years old. Don’t they have finishing schools in Portland?) Ward was playing solo, just him and his much-hyped guitar. His posture while playing the guitar is very strange: seated, legs spread wide apart, torso lined up alongside the guitar at a nearly 90-degree angle to his legs. He began with some furious finger-picking, out of which appeared the melody to the Beach Boys “You Still Believe In Me”. The piece rose and fell in both tempo and volume, Ward alternating sections of frenetic energy with moments of calm. The overall effect was scattered and unfocused. It sounded like the work of a self-congratulatory show-off, immensely pleased with the cleverness of fitting the Beach Boys together with John Fahey, and unaware of the limits of his own skills. This first piece was only the most extreme example of the problem that plagued Ward’s set: he simply sounds too excited by his own guitar playing to play with any kind of solidity. He rushed continually, always trying to fit in a few too many notes, and as a result all of the music felt unsettled.

M. Ward

10 Apr 2003: The Knitting Factory — New York

Next came a cover of David Bowie’s disco-pop classic “Let’s Dance”. Ward transformed it magically, peeling off all the layers of ‘80s glitziness and revealing a simple and heartbreaking song. Next came Ward’s own “Symphony of Song”, which felt almost like a sunny companion piece to the Bowie song, moving at the same gently swaying pace. It’s a beautiful tune, one of the best on Transfigurations of Vincent, but Ward chose to include some unfortunate and jarring passing chords, as if he were bored with his own composition and felt the need to further embellish it. During this concert, he did the same thing with a number of other songs from the album, always with unfortunate results.

Still, the voice was gloriously intact, even if it sounded very strange coming out of the mouth of the slightly manic figure on stage. Ward had a second microphone set up, mostly to play his harmonica through, with some kind of filter on it to make the sound hollow and a little raspy, like an old Delta Blues record from the 1920s. Occasionally he sang through it, and I realized with something of a shock that his voice remained practically unchanged: he already has that filter on his voice. And that quality of coming from another time, not particularly difficult to achieve instrumentally, but quite rare to find convincing in a voice, is part of what makes Ward so intriguing as a musician. So even when the songs felt rushed or unsteady, they were a pleasure to listen to, particularly in the case of “Out of My Head” and “Sad, Sad Song”, both from Transfigurations of Vincent. Unfortunately, during the course of the brief, eight song set, Ward performed three instrumentals, all as useless as the first one. I hope that he eventually cuts down on the instrumentals, and I have a suspicion that if he had a solid band backing him, they might be able to reign in his sense of a rhythm a bit and make the songs feel more stable. Until he gets his act together as a performer, though, you’ll be better off enjoying M. Ward’s beautiful songs in the comfort of your own living room.

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