First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2010, Volume 17, #3
Written by John Metzger
Wed March 10, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
Rock ’n‘ roll may never again go through a period of innovation like it did in the 1960s, but within the indie-rock scene, an increasing number of performers are succeeding in keeping the dream alive. It is strange that it has come to this. Years ago, many of these acts would have been signed to major labels where their careers would be nurtured for the long haul. These days, they are left to their own devices.
Both approaches have their limitations, of course: Major labels tend to eradicate an artist’s individuality, while anyone who opts to pave his own path generally suffers from some level of insularity. The performers who have managed to survive for decades are those who have succeeded in striking a balance between pushing their agenda forward and meeting the demands of their bosses. Yet, the fact that industry executives essentially have turned their backs on the notion of building a roster that can provide an extended period of financial sustenance has made it impossible for legacy outfits to emerge. At the same time, indie artists generally have chosen to surround themselves with posses that provide little resistance.
M. Ward is the type of performer who would have been lavished with immense benefits in exchange for his participation in the music business’ now-abandoned model of artistic development. He not only has a seemingly endless supply of ambition, but he also has a habit of framing his output in a way that is wholly accessible. Although it is still too soon to say this with any certainty, Ward also has learned to remain open to ideas and to accept them from wherever they may come. His knack for achieving growth — on both sides of the line that separates art from commerce — places him squarely among the biggest weapons that the indie-rock scene has in its arsenal.
Ward has been busy of late. He not only teamed with actress Zooey Deschanel in She & Him, but he also united with Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Mike Mogis to form Monsters of Folk. In between these projects, Ward put the finishing touches upon Hold Time, the sixth studio set to bear his name. Not surprisingly, his recent experiences played a role in shaping the endeavor.
For starters, Hold Time isn’t nearly as gloomy as its predecessor Post-War. Ward also has further toned down the flashiness of his guitar-playing ability, favoring subtler textures that quietly shape the mood of his material. At the same time, his arrangements have grown fuller to the point where comparisons to Brian Wilson and Phil Spector are certainly in order.
Musically, Hold Time follows a strangely circuitous path. It begins in one place — with the Lindsey Buckingham-influenced atmosphere of For Beginners — and winds up somewhere else entirely — with the cinematic passages of Outro (aka I’m a Fool to Want You). Yet, everything is connected by the songs that are stuffed inside these extremes. Ward peeks into Memphis’ Sun Studio (Fisher of Men), breezes through the old-time blues of Mississippi John Hurt (One Hundred Million Years), and dabbles in Willie Nelson-esque country (Blake’s View). He also finds the organic essence that often escaped Jeff Lynne (To Save Me), and on the title track, he finds a way of bridging the gap between the solo works of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Ward also uses Hold Time to put a unique spin on a pair of cover tunes: He slows down the tempo to Buddy Holly’s Rave On, giving it a dreamy air, not unlike Robert Plant’s work with The Honeydrippers. Sung as a duet with Lucinda Williams, Oh, Lonesome Me is transformed into a seductive tale of two lost souls who ache for connection and eventually find it.
Ward’s influences may be obvious; his approach may be familiar. Nevertheless, for all of his borrowed arrangements, the same things that prevent Ward’s albums from sitting on the top of the heap are the ones that make them so irresistible. Although it fails to break fresh ground in the pantheon of rock history, Hold Time is ridiculously engaging and infectious; it is an unpretentious waltz through Ward’s record collection. Bound together by lyrics about love, loss, life, and death and dipped in the waters of a spiritual awakening, Hold Time is the sound of an artist who, ten years into his career, has accumulated the knowledge and self-confidence to get out of his own way and simply let the music be. ½
Of Further Interest...
Hold Time is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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