In the world of former power pop, quiet is the new loud. So one gathers from listening to the delicate subtleties of the sophomore solo release from former Cherry Twister creative force Steve Ward. See and Be Seen was "produced, recorded, and mixed by Steve in a barn by the river," according to the CD booklet, and there's a definite rustic ambience to the music. The river is a theme that reappears in many of the songs. There's also a maturity behind it that takes off from Ward's 2000 Opening Night release and veers toward the west with pedal steel and soft string accompaniments.
While those seeking the power pop strains that rocked much of the earlier Cherry Twister might be disappointed, the more mature Ward retains his gift for sweet, delectable melody. His pop sense is more refined now, and his sweet hushed voice comes across easily in a way that's not unlike Art Garfunkel's. Additionally, he is joined on some tracks by kindred music spirit and friend Joe Pisapia (Joe, Marc's Brother), whose own 2002 Daydreams offered an equally quiet and mature set of pleasant songs.
The other musicians that contribute are a notable lot as well: former Cherry Twister alumnus Michael Giblin (Parallax Project) plays bass on several tracks, while Paul Murr handles drums and percussion duties. Matt Thomas lends keyboard assistance, and the talented Chris Carmichael contributes string arrangements and cello. Most notably, Al Perkins and his fine pedal steel lend a dulcet country-western flavor to many of these memorable songs.
"Down by the River" is the opener, a lush bit of stately melancholy that nostalgically looks back upon "a fatigued romance". Simple vocals and guitar give way to drum and strains of pedal steel (and eventually organ): "You brought me down by the river / It was still that night / Alone we kept awake / And peace was found by the morning / But all that remains / Is a smile memorized and a rhyme for the pain".
Vestiges of the old popmeister are found in "The Death of a Star", from the nice bass lines of Pisapia to the Beatle-like infectiously swirling strings. Ward has a way with the simple lyrical phrase, making them all seem laden with extra meaning: "Hell over high-regard, you took it hard / The death of a star is something you read about / And you're sad despite your jealous heart / She had the love that you learned to live without / And it caught you off your guard".
Pretty acoustic folk songs graced by pedal steel and string accents become all the more beautiful. Such is the case with "The River Leads Me Home". wherein the guitar echoes the vocal melody line. Another sweet dreamy song of reflection is the string-laden "Flow".
"Days" is another simple melody (this one enhanced by Matt Thomas' accordion and Michael Giblin's stand-up bass) about lost friends, asking the musical question "where have they gone?". Much of See and Be Seen seems to dwell on the past. There's the pretty baby who once meant something who is viewed now as an "Evergreen", and the alcoholic haze of rose-colored memories of former glory in "Can We Feel?".
The sense of whimsy that flavored songs like "California" and "Western Skies" on the first solo album can be found reflected here in the little ditty "Idaho". Sounding like something from a bygone honky-tonk era, this charming tale of going off to join a girl "from the outer banks of nowhere" who is heading somewhere else (turns out she leaves for California before he even gets to her) clocks in at just over two minutes of pure capricious enjoyment.
"The King of Sinking Spring" has a jazzy feel to it, and probably wouldn't be out of place on a Pisapia or Joe, Marc's Brother collection. Ward plays with harmonies and synthesizer and even a few psychedelic backwards vocals in this tale of a past-his-prime dreamer of bigger things.
Some of the songs on Ward's first solo effort drew comparisons to the late Elliott Smith. Both had a soft approach to pop that derived from folk roots, and a magical ear for creating memorable melodies. Ward is not unaware of the similarities (in fact, he sang a Smith song as tribute at a recent live performance), but I think personality-wise, there wasn't a lot of common ground.
While Smith fought a constant and ultimately losing battle with addictions and himself, Ward has remained in control of his talents (and I hope he will for many long productive years to come). Ward's song "Fighter" could easily be about Smith and his fights with inner and outer turbulence: "Oh my brother you're a fighter / But you say you only act in self-defense / And now your days are getting brighter / But you're running out of time to make amends". Thought about in this context, the song becomes all the stronger and ever more poignant.
The closing track, "Kid Yourself", is further evidence of Ward's maturation as a pop songwriter. He has a real ear for nuance and memorable musical details, can write a great middle bridge and has a soft voice that doesn't strain to get your attention. Oh, and don't forget his talents playing guitar.
Ward is getting better with age, mellowing some and waxing reflective perhaps, but trying out some new musical directions as he works in his barn by the river. He retains his pop pedigree for melody and hooks, but filters them through thoughtfully intelligent, quiet songs now. The end result is music that is easy to listen to, with slower tempos and country flavors, but often beautiful. As such, See and Be Seen deserves to be heard.