Although he's been compared to everyone from John Fahey to Tom Waits to Howe Gelb, with "Hold Time", it's clear that M. Ward, with his brilliant guitar playing and innate sense of melody, is one of those rare and special talents who defy comparison and compartmentalization. His deft guitar picking, bar room piano, and voice like drizzled honey make him a huge favorite of music critics and the focus of public praise from such disparate talents as Norah Jones and Oasis' Noel Gallagher.
Review by James Christopher Monger
M. Ward's fifth proper album begins appropriately with the lyric "When you're absolute beginners, it's a panoramic view," a notion that the dusty Portland, OR-based singer/songwriter must be nostalgic for as his profile increases with each and every project. His 2008 collaboration with actress/singer/songwriter Zooey Deschanel as the producer, player, and arranger of She & Him helped to let the rest of the world in on what the low-key folk underground has been savoring since 2001's End of Amnesia. His penchant for sun-drenched West Coast vistas and timeless narratives that revel in Tom Waits-inspired Americana and non-dogmatic spirituality come full circle on Hold Time, a typical Matt Ward collection of laconic summer songs that could have safely appeared in any decade without suspicion of origin. Similar in scope to 2006's Post-War, Hold Time feels like a single performance, with songs fading out within inches of their successors, often holding true to both instrumentation and theme. Ward populates the project with a handful of guest appearances, though none gratuitous. Deschanel returns the favor on two cuts, a languid cover of the Sonny West gem "Rave On" and "Never Had Nobody Like You," a straight-up blues-rocker that fuses a Gary Glitter backbeat to the skeleton of Post-War nugget "Requiem"; Grandaddy mastermind Jason Lytle helps turn "To Save Me" into a lost ELO-produced Beach Boys rarity; and Lucinda Williams lends her sweetly graveled pipes to a lovely, expansive version of the Don Gibson weeper "Oh Lonesome Me." As always, Ward peppers the record with originals that sound like long-lost Hank Williams tunes ("One Hundred Million Years" and "Shangri-La") and lush ballads that sound like they crawled out of an old safe deposit box. The title track in particular brings to mind Ward's English equal, ex-Pulp guitarist and ultra-cool retro-crooner Richard Hawley -- between the two of them, they've built a bridge between indie and adult alternative rock that positively reeks of class. Hold Time will do little to entice listeners for whom Matt Ward's sepia-tone charm holds no sway, but for fans who have enjoyed the ride thus far, this looks like the sunniest stretch of road yet.
Matt Ward is no longer at the point in his career where you devote an entire album to the memory of an obscure folk guitar hero. The Portland-based singer, songwriter, and accomplished guitar player is enjoying his highest level of mainstream recognition yet, thanks in no small part to a fine, comfortingly nostalgic collaboration with actress Zooey Deschanel last year as She & Him. He has shared stages with Norah Jones, Jenny Lewis, Bright Eyes, and My Morning Jacket. During the presidential primary season, he played a benefit show for Barack Obama.
On Hold Time, Ward loses himself to find himself. With increasingly expansive production and broader lyrical themes, Ward's sixth studio album polishes away a little bit more of the individual character that makes his best recordings so human and rewarding. Paradoxically, that mostly just reinforces Ward's defining trait: a conviction that simple songs can transcend time, and that categorizing music by era can be just as artificial as categorizing music by genre. Ward argues his case pretty convincingly for much of the album, if not quite as eloquently as he has in the past.
Hold Time is not an album-length diatribe about your cable company's understaffed customer-service call centers. "If only I could hold time," Ward's winningly cracked voice sighs wistfully on the title track, a strings-and-piano ballad that sounds like "The Long and Winding Road" and name-checks the Beach Boys compilation Endless Summer. Where 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent was inspired by a memorial service for folk legend John Fahey, 2005's Transistor Radio had the golden age of radio, and 2006's Post-War had wars, Hold Time is conceptually similar to Ward's underrated sophomore album, 2001's End of Amnesia. Back then Ward was helping us remember. Now he's making time stand still, with old sounds, a few old songs, and age-old subjects: love, god, old songs. He also has some indie-famous guest stars.
Bigger arrangements; same folk, rock'n'roll, and Americana roots. With mixing and assistance from Saddle Creek mainstay Mike Mogis, plus strings by Peter Broderick (Horse Feathers, Efterklang), Ward keeps his voice sounding lo-fi even when the production is Phil Spector-sized. "Never Had Nobody Like You" alludes to The Dark Side of the Moon while basically rewriting The Music Man's "Till There Was You" as a stomping glam-rock duet with Deschanel. Ward could've stopped writing "Stars of Leo" early and called it "I Get So High", but to his credit he keeps going; the cascading guitars, vivid verses, and multi-layered percussion make it one of the album's best tracks (though it's not actually "above" the name-checked "Sea of Love"). However, orchestration and vocal overdubs aren't enough to save acoustic strummer "Jailbird" from dying in its cage, despite some twangy, lyrical lead guitar work.
God is the perfect subject for a songwriter of Ward's aspirations toward timelessness. Shuffling guitar hoedown "Fisher of Men" extends one of Jesus' favorite metaphors, while the organ-kissed surfer-folk wisdom of stripped-down "Blake's View" is touching and beautifully phrased, its potentially grating reference to Blake perhaps a way for Ward to distance himself from the song's reassuring sentiments even while offering us comfort in them (pretty close to Transfiguration's "Dead Man", though). "If you're trying to sing an old song/ You're getting all the words wrong," he sings, crediting Paul, whether the Apostle or the Beatle, on strings plus banjo acid-rocker "Epistemology". Grandaddy's Jason Lytle fits well enough into the Wall of Sound on bouncy, clever "To Save Me". Suggested alternate title: "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands (So Would It Kill the Motherfucker to Answer a Guy's Prayers?)".
Covers are another way Ward sets Hold Time out of time. One of them sure goes on forever, anyway: a ponderous rendition of country classic "Oh Lonesome Me" with awkward call and response vocals featuring an out-of-place Lucinda Williams. Buddy Holly's "Rave On" matches up nicely with Ward's simple-is-good philosophy, and this laid-back remake is sonically detailed enough (another Deschanel guest spot) to justify itself-- it has nothing on Transfiguration's irony-free cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance", though. Meanwhile, Ward's instrumental take on Billie Holiday-sung jazz standard "I'm a Fool to Want You" is a smoldering guitar showcase recalling Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack work or the solos of Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, who released Ward's debut a decade ago.
Memory is the world's greatest liar. So it's possible that Ward's past albums seem a cut or two above Hold Time only through the rose-tinted lens of hindsight-- sort of like how we've come to romanticize the Old West, say, or previous eras of rock'n'roll. But the new one, although steeped in American music tradition, could use some more of the pioneering spirit that got us here. Hold Time is an enjoyable, well-constructed album, and as good a place as any for newcomers to start-- it just doesn't hold many surprises. If it all seems too familiar to you, too impersonal, try the back catalog. As memory turns to myth, some myths are worth remembering. Not only John Henry, but Prometheus, too.
- Marc Hogan, February 17, 2009