M. Ward is a hard artist to pin down. His fingerpicking guitar and raspy vocals have a connection to the folk tradition. With the recent success of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and the like, Ward should be set for broader critical and commercial recognition. But he’s not quite a folker. He cites John Fahey as a key influence, but he’s also spent plenty of time listening to the blues, Brian Wilson, Sonic Youth, and Louis Armstrong. Maybe he’s more easily lumped under the Americana banner, but that one unfurls just a little too widely to really be useful.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Forget finding that genre for his music that sounds too traditional to be innovative (yet too unique to be redundant); just figure out what he is. He puts out the sense that he’s a guitarist first, and he only sings to finish off the songs. You can’t deny his fretboard skills, but it’s his voice that haunts. Frequently using his higher registers, Ward can sound almost ghostly, but when he reaches down to the bottom of his range, he becomes more chilling. His recent cover of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” demonstrates how powerful a voice he has, losing all the electronics of the original and pulling all the focus on that baritone.
So, naturally, Ward’s fourth album, Transistor Radio pays tribute to old-timey American radio, and the freedom of broadcasting before these days of playlists and greased palms (he dedicates the album to “the last of the independent and open format” DJs). Ward ventures across the dial, creating music uniquely his but in no way unfamiliar. The opening track sets this tone of comfortable unpredicability as Ward does an instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me” with an almost classical technique on his acoustic guitar. If that style isn’t classical enough for you, stick around until the album closes with “Well-Tempered Clavier”, a number by Bach. The tracks between those numbers make up less of a degrees-of-separation game and more of a distillation of related sounds.
Even while the album looks over its shoulder, Ward keeps his head in the present with a variety of guests from hot and respected acts on the contemporary scene. Rilo Kiley’s star Jenny Lewis appears on a couple tracks, including the blues-stomp “Big Boat”, which also includes the drumming of Decemberist Rachel Blumberg. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James—with whom Ward recently toured—plays and sings twice on the album, including the gorgeous and sobering “Fuel for Fire”. Ward sings, “Got 45s to play at night / Got books to spend with every weekend / The story’s always the same / Got lonesome fuel for fire”. His delivery never shifts into a bemoaning or a pleading, but the pain comes across as clearly as in any blues singer’s groan.
A few tracks later, Ward answers the bleak side of his music with “Here Comes the Sun Again”, in which he borrows “some melody from George Harrison (R.I.P.)”. The track opens with a subtle piano rendition, and never truly takes over the Harrison hook until the very end. Ward holds his influences out for examination on this track, but still manages to make the guitar part completely his own.
At this point, you might be thinking that Ward’s just another indie-rocker, influenced by the same old groups but having avoided going twee due to his outlook at voice. You’d be wrong, and he shows it by doing a credible rendition of the Carter Family’s “Oh Take Me Back”, fitting in with the old country as well as with the new rock. In going back through the past 100 years (and more, with the Bach nod) of music, Ward creates an album to hold the coalescence of that material. Even if he isn’t entirely breaking new ground, he does put together over 40 straight minutes of eminently listenable music that works as both a reminder of and an accomplishment in its tradition. Traditions.