As a rule I am not a "production quality" fetishist. In fact, I swing more in the other direction being an Authenticity Snob, desiring my Rock Music Service Providers to serve my product to me cold in the middle with blood on that plate. But every once in a while an album comes along that slaps me into realizing the magic in the sonic kitchen is just as important as the quality of the raw ingredients. Badly Drawn Boy's "The Hour of the Bewilderbeast" is a prime example, and so is the subject of this review, the new masterpiece by M. Ward.
I remember sitting out on my swing set with my neighbor Tracy Quackenbush listening to the eerie transistor radio static of the minute silence when John Lennon died. Not that we were extraordinarily hip 3rd graders that had a grasp of Cultural Impact, we just happened to be outside listening to the radio hoping the Bay City Rollers would come on. Transistor Radio has this brilliant texture to it without being a gimmicky nostalgia hiss salad. Instead, its subdued recording, its mushiness sounds like its coming from someplace in the back of your head. It sounds like memory, if that's possible.
Now, the best Iron Chef Chen Kenichi in Music Producer Stadium could not prepare such a sumptuous feast without the aromatic and fresh ingredients. M. Ward always delivers, in my book, straddling the fence between straight up songwriter and loose poet, with his intricate guitar work, haunting deep-yet-high voice and devastatingly insidious turn of phrase. The opening track "You Still Believe in Me" sets the pace for this record, with its plunking and lilting guitar, so defining that you feel you can hear the actual wood of the guitar, resting on a soft featherbed of acoustic strumming and quiet reverb. His swallowed delivery of "Sweethearts on Parade" just melts me, with its sunny California beat slightly darkened by his vague sadness. The heartbeats that feed into the plaintive ballad "Fuel For Fire", the Calexico-with‚Äìa-better-vocalist Old West romp of "Four Hours in Washington" leading into the stampede of "Regeneration #1", the profound melancholy of "Deep Dark Well" all just knock me on my ass. Really, there is not a dull point on the thing. The real highlight for me is the quietly powerful strummed folk plea, "I'll Be Yr Bird." Its like being knocked down with a blow from a wiffle bat. The track was originally included as a bonus on his Giant Sand-issued Duet for Guitars #2 but despite it being an older number than the rest, its a testament to what a strong and consistent song-maker M. is.
I really thought he could never top his last album Transfiguration of Vincent, and well, maybe he hasn't. Instead of trying to compete with the wide pop swath of that masterpiece, he has shifted to a slightly more intimate direction and created a gem of equal luster. I urge you to sweep this up post haste and remind yourself what a Really Good Album sounds like again.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com