Matt Ward, mostly known by the abbreviation "M Ward", was already a veteran
singer-songwriter when he debuted solo, having performed for several years
with Rodriguez, a central California band that had
released Swing Like a Metronome (Devil In The Woods, 1999).
Recorded after his relocation to Oregon,
Ward's first collection, Duet For Guitars #2
(Co-Dependent, 1999 - Ow Om, 2000 - Merge, 2004), mostly recorded in 1997,
was too introverted to be even classified as alt-country: it was just a very
personal form of moaning. Nonetheless, Ward had obviously studied the classics.
Beautiful Car intones a stately litany evoking both Tom Waits and Nico.
Fishing Boat Song borrows the decadent boogie rhythm of the Velvet Underground,
Scene from No 12 the martial pace and the whining tone of Neil Young.
The fatalistic rigmaroles of Bob Dylan relive in
Song from Debby's Stairs.
Were You There harkens even further back in time, to the folksingers
of the 1950s.
Ward's unique specialty are the warm, soulful melodies that he employs to
digress from his melancholia, such as Who May Be Lazy and
It Won't Happen Twice, that represent the alter ego and antidote to
Nick Drake's lugubrious confessions.
Furthermore, his stream of consciousness extended to the guitar: Ward had
already mastered the guitar-based soliloquy invented by
John Fahey, as displayed in the many
instrumentals of the album (Duet for Guitars No 2,
Duet for Guitars Pt 1).
End Of Amnesia (Future Farmer, 2001) featured a few numbers
(Half Moon) that hinted at a more lively and social mood and that
refined his John Fahey-esque soliloquy.
The album also brought to the surface the nostalgic and naive elements
that were working their way through Ward's psyche and were responsible for
his most touching moments.
The songs, harkening back to pre-war country, blues and gospel music,
resurrected the specters of
The closing song, O'Brien Nocturne, was the most original in reinterpreting that tradition, adding a four-minute instrumental psychedelic coda.
At the same time
the more sophisticated vocal harmonies of Color Of Water,
the surreal percussion and undulating melody of So Much Water
and the psychotic lullaby From A Pirate Radio Sermon
introduced a more varied and magical inner world, one in which the guitar
and the voice truly "dueted" as his first album had prophesized.
Besides being more eccentric, Ward had also learned how to be more musical:
for example, the fluent and driving Flaming Heart bordered on rockabilly
with barrelhouse piano and jangling guitar.
The solo-guitar numbers range from the lightweight
Leo Kottke-esque Silverline
to the the calm, intense Psalm.
Gone were the imitations of the classics. This was a very personal album not
in the lyrics but in the musical presentation.
Transfiguration of Vincent (Merge, 2003) opted to make the music less
personal and more public. Sad Sad Song still has the charming
old-fashioned quality of the previous albums, but most songs are now trying
to speculate on the retro sound rather than use it for a purpose.
Transistor Radio (2005) is even more cynical in "selling out" Ward's
vignettes, that are beginning to sound like mere fluff.
Post-war (2006) boasts, finally, a full-band sound. But the tone is still
Ward's trademark detached whine, and the way he constructs his songs is still
an abridged version of the history of USA popular music, from archaic spiritual
(Afterword Rag) to Louis Armstrong's ballads (Today's Undertaking)
to lounge blues (Eyes On The Prize)
to Tom Waits' drunken elegies (Rollercoaster).
Nonetheless, the vastly increased stylistic variety
(the string-tinged and pounding Poison Cup,
the frantic To Go Home with piano and female choir,
the dancing and syncopated Right In The Head,
the lively shuffle Chinese Translation on a locomotive rhythm,
the ethereal and bluesy Requiem,
the speedy and twanging instrumental Neptune's Net,
the crazy jug-band singalong Magic Trick).
makes the material sound more alive than in the past.
She & Him is a collaboration with actress and singer Zooey Deschanel that
started on Volume 1 (Merge, 2008),
a collection of old-fashioned soul and country ballads
harking back to the generation of Carly Simon, Rita Coolidge and Linda Ronstadt,
with occasional nods to the girl-groups of the 1960s (but more the
Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield kind than the Phil Spector-ian kind).
She pens old-fashioned mellow simple
country, folk and pop ballads that he arranges borrowing predictably from
the Brill Building and Nashville studios of the 1960s
(Sentimental Heart, This Is Not A Test).
Change Is Hard is reminiscent of Ronstadt's Different Drum
and Petula Clark might have liked I Was Made for You.
The project continued on Volume Two (Merge, 2010), no less shameless
in its revival of orchestral pop of the Sixties.
Conor Oberst and
My Morning Jacket's
Monsters Of Folk in the vein of
Crosby Stills Nash & Young,
and released the ambitious
Monsters Of Folk (2009), containing
Dear God and Slow Down Jo.
Hold Time (Merge, 2009),
featuring a plethora of guests (Lucinda Williams,
Devotchka's Tom Hagerman,
Grandaddy's Jason Lytle,
Decemberists' Rachel Blumberg), harked back to
hard-rock and glam-rock of the 1970s, notably
Never Had Nobody Like You (his poppy peak so far),
To Save Me
His heart, however, may be more into the orchestral Hold Time.
Both musically and lyrically
A Wasteland Companion (2012) had little to commend itself, but the
country-pop strategy of Never Had Nobody Like You was continued with
The First Time I Ran Away.
and the Manfred Mann-ish ditty
Primitive Girl opened a new commercial front.
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