Recording of September 2006: Post-War

M. WARD: Post-War
Merge MRG 280 (CD). 2006. M. Ward, Jim James, prods.; Mike Coykendall, prod., eng.; Adam Selzer, Mike Mogis, Nick Luca, engs. AAD? TT: 37:35
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

Walk into a record store, look at the racks, and you'll see 10 guys, 10 solo artists, whose records don't have one good song among them. The word is out: the sensitive alt-rock folkie-dude thing is way, way overdone.

Fortunately, one of the creators of that now choked and muddled genre (to nearly paraphrase the gone but still mighty Doo Rag) is still with us after more than a decade, still making records that are getting better. By better I mean deeper, richer, and—to unload the really big guns of critical praise—more evocative, if that's possible.

Influenced by the likes of John Fahey, whose fingerpicking he occasionally pays tribute to, and by the eccentric genius of Giant's Sand's Howe Gelb (who released Ward's first solo record on his Ow Om label) the former Matt Ward is wonderfully ambitious and eclectic—not to mention quiet, moody as hell, and possessed of a sensibility best described as urban hick. As closely connected to alt rock as to more traditional branches of American popular music, Ward's musical range can perhaps best be defined by the covers he plays live and on record, and which have become a cherished and closely followed part of what he does. Think of the ground shared by David Bowie's "Let's Dance," the Carter Family's "Oh Take Me Back," Brian Wilson's "You Still Believe in Me," and J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and you'll have a rough idea of where Ward and his music live. Here, for his fifth full-length—what he's calling in interviews his first "band record"—he adds to the growing stash of flavorful and taste-making covers he's recorded the beautiful "To Go Home," by Austin cult folky and chemical-imbalance patient Daniel Johnston.

Like his music, Ward's band is unconventional, blending the talents of two drummers, Rachel Blumberg (Decembrists) and Jordan Hudson, with the violin and viola of Amanda Lawrence. Guest Neko Case appears in the background of one tune, "To Go Home," which nearly qualifies as a duet. And while the sound of Post-War is not audiophile quality, it's very listenable and serves his close-miked voice and multilayered instrumental textures extremely well.

The work of some musicians embodies a single adjective. In Ward's case, ghostly fits like a mitten. Much of that effect comes from his voice, which, though often quiet and remarkably pliant, as in "Post-War" here, runs a three-way tie for expressivity with his tasty fingerpicking and his mastery in using guitar and keyboards as much for sonic painting as for accompaniment. In "Right in the Head," he uses a buzzy electric guitar tone on a figure that reprises the melody after each verse, and it's brilliant. The same is true in "Magic Trick," where he doubles a vocal line with a not-unpleasant effect that sounds almost like an air-raid siren. For the full-on M. Ward guitar experience there's the tremolo instrumental, "Neptune's Net," in which he channels the Ventures through Brian Wilson.

And speaking of melodies, at the center of Ward's talent is his songwriting—what drew Howe Gelb to him in the first place—which continues to be an otherworldly mix of melodic hooks, rock triumphalism, and a definite bluegrass-like down-home flavor, all overlaid with a soft, folky, acoustic guitar–led veneer. The result can be ebullient, like this record's happy single, "Chinese Translation," whose chorus sums up much of Ward's overall lyrical interests: "What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart / How can a man like me remain in the light / If life is really as short as they say / then why is the night so long." All of his records also have an old-timey vibe; here it flashes through in spots, as in one of the album's best tunes, "Requiem," which opens with a section mimicking the sound of an old 78rpm blues record and ends each verse with the simple refrain "He's a good man / And now he's gone."

Post-War reaches its dreamy peak—dreamy's another word Ward's music regularly conjures up—in "Rollercoaster," whose tune and arrangement are so natural, so utterly charming, that it's almost like a lullaby or nursery rhyme—albeit one that opens with the words "You're like a Rollercoaster / You got heavy metal wings."

Singular talents are rare, particularly in the mobbed world of alt rock, but M. Ward, in his quiet but focused way, continues to be a trendsetter and an artistic original.—Robert Baird