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
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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.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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