Music

M. Ward: Hold Time

Ward crafts a fuller sound, while still mining musical history for inspiration, and recreates himself as a charming full-on performer rather than a quietly forlorn singer.


M. Ward

Hold Time

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2009-02-17
UK Release Date: 2009-02-16
Amazon
iTunes

On his 2003 breakthrough album, The Transfiguration of Vincent, M. Ward presented us with an album so personal and deep with feeling, so imbued with heartache and loss, and led by a singer and guitarist that can project a beautiful sound while staying curled up in himself, that it could be as difficult to listen to as it was to ignore.

Transistor Radio showed Ward opening up a little, become less a conduit for his sound and more a performer of it. But he made the album all about the old-time AM radio, and the conceptual nostalgia didn't quite come together. It seemed unnecessary to force a history on Ward's songs, because his own sound is so steeped in musical tradition. And Ward himself seems such an astute student of music that he doesn't need to conceptualize his songs' influences.

Which is what made 2006's Post-War and his new album, Hold Time, such great turns for Ward. Like its predecessor, Hold Time is steeped in plenty of musical traditions -- folk, country, classic rock, blues, soul, and, yes, the AM band -- but all of them are laid upon the unpaved road of M. Ward's sound. His guitar work, often steeped in the feel of John Fahey and Robbie Basho, has morphed into a complex sound all his own. And, perhaps most importantly, Ward is opening up even more as a singer.

That seems like a strange thing to say about a guy who has given us music so heartbreakingly personal in the past. But the success in Hold Time is in Ward stepping out into the spotlight, coming fully into his own as a performer. To hear opener "For Beginners" is to hear an utterly charming singer rather than a slump-shouldered and sullen one. The Appalachian feel to "One Hundred Million Years" doesn't imply a tradition of sadness, but instead taps into a long-standing and restless joy that has always been a part of folk music. And "Stars of Leo" serves as a statement of purpose for Ward, lovingly paying homage to the feeling in his gut that music brings, the impossible highs and lows it can bring out in us all.

And those are just the songs that sound close to his earlier material. M. Ward steps out on new, fascinating limbs quite a bit on Hold Time. Overall, the album sounds much bigger than anything he's ever done, and you can feel Ward having fun with all that size. "Never Had Nobody Like You" does feature Zooey Deschanel, but it is hardly a She & Him number. In fact, the crunchy guitars and bouncing drums owe quite a bit to classic rock, and works much better than the overly cute She & Him stuff. "To Save Me" sounds, at first, a lot like "Big Boat" and Ward's cover of Daniel Johnston's "To Go Home". But further listens reveal it as something just as rocking, but far more lush than those other songs. The backing vocals -- provided by ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle -- haunt behind Ward's breathy growl, and Lytle's knack for fuzzy atmosphere and a quick-strike mandolin line make the song sound simultaneously larger-than-life and completely elemental. And "Fisher of Men" sounds like vintage Ward, but with a nice twist. He fully embraces country music here, and the results make it sound like Ward singing over the Tennessee Three. While that may sound derivative, it's not. Ward's reverbed guitar lines slide and dip over the track the way only his can, but their high-treble tone is surely paying tribute at the same time.

This bigger sound, layered with guitars and strings, keyboards and choirs of backing vocals, isn't just in service to his happier side. The highs Ward sings about on "Stars of Leo" wouldn't mean a thing without the lows to accompany them. The title track is achingly slow, full of strings and keys and little else besides Ward's keening vocals. "You were beyond comprehension tonight, but I understood...", he sings to start off the bittersweet track, and he sounds like a downright torch singer, pulling on each note, twisting and squeezing them until the emotion drips out. It would be the quietest moment on a pretty up-tempo album if it weren't for Ward's version of "Oh Lonesome Me".

With this track, originally written by Don Gibson, Ward proves once again there are few performers out there who can be as compelling when covering a song as he can. Here, he makes the song a duet with Lucinda Williams, and the two work fantastically together. Both their voices creak and wrinkle, but it is how they deliver the lines that makes the song. As if the original wasn't achingly drawn-out enough, there are huge holes between the lines in Ward's version, and those spaces really drive home the sentiment of the song. It is heartbreaking, yes, but there is also a comfort in that space, a feeling of dealing with solitude, of owning it, at least for a time, and even inviting us to revel in the solitude ourselves. It is, like so many M. Ward covers, plainly stunning.

And through all of Hold Time, from the unbridled joy of "One Hundred Million Years" to the bittersweet croon of the title track, to the sadness and space of "Oh Lonesome Me", Ward never turns inward. He is always performing out on this album, playing with friends and letting their influences shape the songs, building a bridge to the rest of the world. Once again, Ward has passed a musical history lesson, but he has pushed past that and given us something new. Not just new music, but a new M. Ward. A player with a bigger sound, with a charming, sly grin hiding behind his gravelly voice. The unpaved road of Ward's sound used to lead to an isolated cabin. But now, with Hold Time, it splits and leads out to a country bar or a city streakhouse or a cook out in the suburbs or a campsite in the mountains. This is music that can reach anyone from a performer that could be, amazingly enough, just hitting his stride.

8

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

What makes Call Be By Your Name stand out from the films it will be compared to (Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight) is Guadagnino's play on juxtapositions, which go much deeper than merely an angsty teen with an introspective soul.

If you're a 17-year-old boy sorting out your sexuality, there has to be worse place to do it than the Northern Italian landscape of writer-director Luca Guadagnino's latest drama, Call Me By Your Name. It's 1983 and Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalame) is the classic case of what psychologists call a social introvert: While flirting with a French girl in the countryside lake, he charms with a bad-boy air -- he's capable of passing as an extrovert and much more -- but he's obviously much more in his element alone. The summer days find him composing piano concertos by the family's pool or riding his bike through rural roads. His contradictions, broody but introspective, are seductive, much like the famed "bad boy" ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who was arguably the most prolific dancer of his generation but broke high-culture norms by tattooing his torso and making tabloids with his late-night party-boy antics.

Keep reading... Show less
9

On new album 2017, Afropop artist Leila Gobi is a one-woman sugar rush.

There's a refreshing straightforwardness to Leila Gobi's music on new album 2017. Opening track "An Nia" begins with the quick, high-pitched guitar patterns that have become so integral to exported Malian pop, forming melodic loops that Gobi's nasal voice shoots through like a joyful arrow. The whole album follows suit, with thin electronics framing Gobi and her backup singers in repetitive dance tracks that are often minimal in texture but constantly pumping up the volume and energy.

Keep reading... Show less
6
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image