M. Ward's Transfiguration of Vincent is nothing less than spectacular. From the buoyant, late-Beatlesque "Vincent O'Brien" to the dank, shuffling, south of the border groove on "Sad, Sad Song," the troubadour manages to capture a timeless folkiness and match it with a surreal and sparkling sense of nostalgia that clearly echoes Tom Waits. Recorded with the Old Joe Clarks as the backup band, Transfiguration is rooted firmly in old-time Americana, yet M. Ward's take on country and particularly his vocals somehow fit perfectly with Giant Sand, Sparklehorse, and California's surreal, pastoral psych-pop outfit Grandaddy (whose Jason Lytle contributed some field recordings).
Matthew Stephen Ward's seventh studio album was recorded in eight different studios and boasts 18 guest musicians, including Rachel Cox (Oakley Hall), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes), Tom Hagerman (Devotchka), Tobey Leaman (Dr. Dog), and She & Him's X chromosome Zooey Deschanel, just to name a few. Such a heroic production itinerary should surely yield appropriately epic results, but Ward's Wasteland Companion feels as organic and understated as anything he's done thus far.
Laconic California indie minstrel M. Ward's fifth offering is a thrift shop photo album filled with histories that may or may not have been, dust bowl carnival rides, and slices of sunlit Western Americana so thick that you need a broom to sweep up the bits that fall off of the knife. Ward makes records that sound like he just wandered in off the street with a few friends and hit the record button, but what would feel lazy and unfocused in less confident hands comes off like a tutorial in old-school songwriting and performance that hearkens back to the days of Hank Williams and Leadbelly if they had had access to a modern-day studio.
M.Ward's second solo enterprise verifies the artist as one of those few songwriters who stand between the cracks of time, where he spins a hallucinatory, new universe out of old-world roots. Indeed, there's a real down-home, unpolished luster to End of Amnesia, both in execution and in songwriting, that gives it a timeless, old-fashioned pallor. And yet there's also something just slightly off in the songs, a strange, disembodied quality that seems to come at least partly from an ulterior place, be it real or imagined. That attribute is precisely what gives the music such a singular, distinctive sound and vision. Ward comes off like a sort of one-man the Band with nothing but a beat-up guitar and his sepia croak of a voice.
M. Ward's latest is a rough-cut Americana diamond, one crafted not simply from folk and bluegrass but also 50s AM radio, the saloon cabaret of studio-era Hollywood, and good old-fashioned indie rock. It's artists like M. Ward who make me contemplate why I write about music. I get my skin tingling to the acoustic guitars and I'm just thinking "Jesus, is this what it's about?" I'm trying to put the feeling this music gives me into words in an attempt to understand it, to convey how great it is and why, and maybe convince you that it's worth your cash or your bandwidth, and it occurs to me that I'm unsure why I do it– why I need to do it– and that, in the end, it's because I'm enjoying this and I want you to enjoy it, too.
With his static-dusted voice and predilection for early rock antiquity, M. Ward has always come across as one of his generation's more understated bards. Interpreting the ever-deepening subtleties of his catalog generally requires repeated listens, and such is the case with his ninth solo effort, the appropriately moody More Rain. Easing in with a minute-long rainstorm soundscape, he leads off with the dreamy acoustic gallop of "Pirate Dial," a genial folk-pop hymn perfectly suited for the patient rotations of a vinyl long-player. A stuttering guitar groove on the Neko Case-aided "Time Won't Wait" quickens the album's pulse, setting up the similarly paced lead single, "Confession," a classic Ward track replete with a rich vein of warm backing vocals and soaring trumpet solo.