- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

M. Ward

Hold Time

Merge Records

I first heard M. Ward when he was a relative unknown opening for the alt-country band Lambchop in Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom.

An unassuming presence, he sang with a raspy voice that evoked an age before electric guitars and amplifiers. His cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” still lingers in my memory, with Mr. Bowie’s stridently upbeat pop track transformed into a slow burn. Mr. Ward played it in half-time and croaked the lyrics as a half-formed plea. The song had a hidden heart it’s creator had ignored, and Mr. Ward found it.

That track can be taken as a microcosm of Mr. Ward’s approach to music. He’s not a groundbreaking composer, but he’s able to isolate something essential and seemingly lost in every musical tradition he mines - whether it’s folk, country or rock. On “Hold Time,” Mr. Ward’s sixth studio album, he focuses in part on a distinctly out-of-vogue chapter of the American songbook: 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Mr. Ward, however, isn’t a sock-hop revivalist. He leans toward the more grown-up sounds of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, with their insinuations of mortality.

On “Never Had Nobody Like You,” he sings over a fuzz-box rhythm guitar playing a simple progression, with a steady rhythm that’s accented with hand claps. A trill of electric piano and bluesy guitar licks trickles in here and there. “Jailbird,” the third of the album’s 14 cuts, takes a simple acoustic guitar rhythm and layers in an eerie organ sound that tracks the spectral mood of the vocals.

“Rave On” is a cover of a song made famous by Buddy Holly, but Mr. Ward reduces the boisterous vocal track to a tone just above a whisper, lending a sense of wonderment to such lyrics as, “When you say, ‘I love you’/I say, ‘Rave on.’ ”

The title track is more in the vein of present-day chamber pop with its infusion of strings; subtle, mellifluous hooks; and sustained Hammond organ notes. However, its sonic overtones of tragedy reveal a kinship with the “death discs”- ballads of fatal teenage romance - from the early 1960s.

“Absolute Beginners,” which opens the album, feels new and old all at once. The picked acoustic guitar rumbles like an engine as simple hand claps provide percussion. Mr. Ward’s lyrics hearken back to the Garden of Eden, with a rueful but awestruck depiction of innocence. The biblical theme continues on “Epistemology,”which intersperses references to Paul’s letters with an extremely catchy drumbeat.

Zooey Deschanel, Mr. Ward’s partner in the duo She & I, appears on a couple of tracks, but the most notable guest turn here is the duet with country chanteuse Lucinda Williams on “Oh Lonesome Me.” At a little more than six minutes, it feels positively discursive on an album consisting of mostly three-minute cuts. The song mixes lush cello arrangements with soaring pedal-steel notes and that shimmering, sad organ sound that’s the musical equivalent of a dog baying at the moon.

It sounds a lot like the kind of take on 1950s music pioneered in the late 1980s by the Cowboy Junkies. Yet to his credit, Mr. Ward doesn’t shy away from this approach just because it has been done. As a result, “Hold Time” is like a lot of M. Ward’s work - sounding like a ghostly AM broadcast from some imagined musical past that’s just now being tuned in.

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