Album Of The Year – M Ward

Once an artist has released a few albums of pure gold, those albums that get an easy 100 plays, they have a nasty habit of plummeting downhill faster than Bode Miller on PCP. Very few bands manage to keep up a level of quality that sets them apart from their peers, and almost all disappear back into the gloom and mire and a possible 2015 reunion tour, remembered by a few loyal fans and few others. The first sign is normally an album that just seems listless, lifeless, lacking in energy and vim and verve and other lively whatnots. Item 1, for the jury’s deliberation, is M Ward’s “Hold Time”. The second sign is a whole load of guest appearances, “superband” recordings and the like. Item 2, “She And Him” and “Monsters Of Folk”. Do you need me to go on?

So it was a great surprise and shock to me when I first listened to M Ward’s “A Wasteland Companion”1. First off, there was the opener, “Clean Slate”. Starting off with that wonderfully dextrous, woody guitar that he can apparently toss off in his sleep, followed by his wonderfully warm, woody voice, I had an inkling that I was in safer hands than his last effort. Then lead single “Primitive Girl” came along, all glam-rock-gone-Americana stomp, initially feeling somewhat thrown off, but with the payoff lines “That primitive girl, she don’t need me” telling me there was more to the song than met the eye.

Song by song tumbled past, each making me think that there was something good happening. “The First Time I Ran Away” with its charming ease. The rollicking rockabilly of “I Get Ideas”, a song that he’s managed to cover not once but twice in entirely different ways. The way that he’d finally managed to make Zooey Deschanel sound not utterly irritating on “Sweetheart”. And the fact that after a whole bunch of albums on which he’s been unable to find a decent song to end on, he’d found four on “A Wasteland Companion”, from “There’s A Key” right through to “Pure Joy”.

And two live shows during the year helped cement my feelings about this record. First off, supporting Feist, made me pleased that so many people seemed to be there to see him, though I can only vaguely remember “I Get Ideas”. But a headline show at a sold-out Koko gave me great, great joy; a man clearly loving what he does, and starting now to reach out to his audience and talk to us, talk to us I say! And that gig made me think that yes, this record was great. Maybe not quite up there with Transistor Radio, or Post-War, but great enough.

1 Now I’m sure I’m being stupid here, but is this solely named after Fallout? Not some Henry David Thoreau essay?

MP3: I Get Ideas (Lauren Laverne Show 200312) by M Ward

Buy “A Wasteland Companion” (CD/MP3). Still under a fiver!

That Lovely Idea

One day, I will be rich. One day, I’ll win a big, big lottery win and with that money, I will call M Ward and ask him for some guitar lessons. I don’t care if I’ll have to fly to Portland to see him. I don’t care if I’ll have to pay him much money for this honour. All I’d care about is spending some time with this marvellous individual, just to see how the hell he plays his goddamn guitar.

Because, frankly, there aren’t many people out there who can play like him. Sure, James Blackshaw can do the whole long-fingernails-what-the-blazes-is-going-on-there thing, him from Russian Circles makes some astonishing music with pedals and tapping and whatnot, and there’s all sorts of fretwankery from the likes of Steve Vai, but no-one, no-one I tell you, can take an acoustic and just play and sing and make something astonishing sound like the most natural thing in the world.

And what’s caused this belated mash note? Alcohol? Why, yes, but also having played this little-listened to excerpt from the Lauren Laverne show back in March on YouTube for a good few weeks now, I thought I’d finally say something about it1:

It’s had 2,474 views. I suspect around a hundred of them were me. M Ward has a gift of taking someone else’s song and making it utterly his own. I can only imagine what songwriters that he covers think. He sneaks into their house and moves the furniture, hoovers the carpets and gets some new curtains, and before you know it, he’s inviting them arond for a cup of tea and some cake. And they are glad he’s done it.

Sure, in this case, the songwriter (a certain Julio Cesar Sanders – thanks, Wikipedia!) is long gone, but the idea still remains. Not only has M Ward done one cover of this song, he’s done two – the first being the rock’n’roll version on A Wasteland Companion, the other being the solo acoustic version presented here.

Just listen to the way he strums to keep the rhythm going. Just listen to how he deftly picks out the bassline. Just listen to the elegantly played melody. And just listen to his wonderful warm, soft, intimate singing, full of smiles and love and promise and just a hint of sadness. Above all, just listen.

The guy’s a fucking genius.

MP3: I Get Ideas (Lauren Laverne Show 200312) by M Ward

1 It being dreadfully quiet round here, and all.

Buy “A Wasteland Companion” for £4.99. £4.99! You’d be a fool not to.

This Isn’t About Zooey

So M. Ward is back, back, back! Ok, so he’s hardly ever gone away, what with all the duets and collaborations and whatnots, but there’s a new solo album on the way in April called “A Wasteland Companion”1. Which, I guess, is reason for us all to yell and shout and go wooo! a great deal. Although if it’s as disappointing as Hold Time, maybe not so much.

Oh put that flower down, you're 32 for Christ's sake

Another track has popped out today, called “Primitive Girl”, and I can safely say he’s not returning to the acoustics round the campfire feel of Duet For Guitars #2. I would say this is a disappointment, but after playing this a few times, I’m quite enjoying, so I’ll just have to wait and see what the whole record is like before making a knee-jerk reaction.

1 I’m assuming this is not a reference to Fallout 3, though I’d have to be impressed if it was. I am a geek.

Buy Stuff From Amazon’s M Ward Store

Songs Of 2009 (Part Two)

I didn’t originally intend this to be a two-parter, but when I got to twelve songs with the distinct impression that I’d forgotten a bunch, I thought I’d be safe and do this in two sections. That way I can bung stuff in at the end that I forgot first time round. Part one is over here.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I Am Goodbye

Just about the only good song from his “Beware” album. A rollicking stompalong, with more than a touch of wit and humour, with a great video thrown in. If only the album had been half as good.

MP3: I Am Goodbye by Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Buy “Beware” (CD)

Phoenix – 1901

A friend asked me the other night: “So what do you listen to when you need cheering up?”. This was the first song that popped into my head and on reflection, I can’t think of many better.

MP3: 1901 by Phoenix

Buy “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (CD/MP3)

M Ward – Hold Time

The only song from the album from which it stems that I still listen to, filed firmly alongside Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s latest. Funny that the song from a man whose guitar playing skills are almost unparalleled, has pretty much no guitar on. Who’da thunk it?

MP3: Hold Time by M. Ward

Buy “Hold Time” (CD/MP3)

Yo La Tengo – I’m On My Way

Ok, this album just didn’t quite sneak into my albums of the year, but it probably should have. Isn’t hindsight wonderful? It was either this or “Avalon, Or Someone Very Similar”. But this just pips it by being just gorgeously laid-back.

MP3: I’m On My Way by Yo La Tengo

Buy “Popular Songs” (CD/MP3)

Bloggy Tracks

Already posted during the year, these are bands that I hope to hear much more of in 2010.

Color Radio – Newest News

A great song from a pretty damn good EP. Wistful Americana, in a very good way.

MP3: Newest News by Color Radio

Mixtapes and Cellmates – Soon

Keeps popping into my head at inopportune moments, which is always the sign of a great record. Overwrought, dramatic Scandinavian indie-rock, and fantastic.

MP3: Soon by Mixtapes and Cellmates

Anyway, that’s it for this year. Thanks for visiting, reading, listening, emailing and commenting, and hope you have a fantastic 2010.

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Albums Of The Decade (Part Three)

Here’s part three of my list of albums of the decade. These are albums I love and have listened to, ooh, hundreds of times over the years. Pretty much all of them are still on my very full iPhone, instead of more current stuff like Animal Collective or whoever, because they are great. Oh yes.

Part one is here
and part two is here. Enjoy.

One Swan

Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans (2004)

For all the wondrous musicality of his “States” albums, this stripped-down, acoustic album shows the beauty and tenderness of his songwriting at its absolute height.

MP3: The Dress Looks Nice On You by Sufjan Stevens

Buy “Seven Swans” (CD/MP3)

Swim Until You Can't See A Band

American Music Club – Love Songs For Patriots (2004)

Making an album with the word “Patriots” in the title at the height of post-9/11 anguish and rage, then filling it with songs of anguish, rage, and the wonders of male strippers, was never going to make them too many new friends. But it’s their best album, and Mark Eitzel at his finest.

MP3: Home by American Music Club

Buy “Love Songs for Patriots” (CD/MP3)


Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)

If you find the first minute of “Bridges and Balloons” utterly wonderful, then you’ll love this. If you think she is a wailing harpy, then you may probably just want to move onto the next record. You’re missing out though, mind.

MP3: This Side of the Blue by Joanna Newsom

Buy “The Milk-Eyed Mender” (CD/MP3)

It's Supposed To Be A Funeral

Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

Or how the Internet will get you noticed. Sure, there’s more that a touch of the U2’s about their later material, but go and listen to this again and be utterly transfixed by their tales of lost childhood all over again. So filled with drama that you need the quieter songs to catch your breath.

MP3: Neighborhood #2 (Laika) by The Arcade Fire

Buy “Funeral” (CD/MP3)

Loneliness Hangs In The Air, Indeed

Richard Hawley – Coles Corner (2005)

Lovelorn tales from Sheffield’s finest guitarist. His most complete album; this could just as easily have been made in 1957 or 1963, but it’s far too lovely to be snooty about.

MP3: Coles Corner by Richard Hawley

Buy “Coles Corner” (CD/MP3)

Lonesome Fire

M Ward – Transistor Radio (2005)

This could also say “The Transfiguration Of Vincent” or “Post War”, but look, I had to make a choice and as this was the first record of M Ward’s I ever heard, this is my choice. Go for all three, frankly. Ageless, timeless beauty.

MP3: Hi-Fi by M. Ward

Buy “Transistor Radio” (CD)

(2005 will continue in Part Four)

And out of chronological order, because I forgot it earlier:

Stripes And Stars And Stripes

Tortoise – Standards (2001)

Electro-free-jazz-noise-post-rock-funk, as played by aliens. Wonderful, exasperating, confusing and brilliant, usually at the same time.

MP3: Seneca by Tortoise

Buy “Standards” (CD)

Albums Of The Decade (Part One)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Two)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Four)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Five)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Six)

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Live Review – M Ward at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire

There’s something odd about M Ward. Whilst I’ve listened to three of his albums – Transfiguration of Vincent, Transistor Radio and Post-War – more than pretty much anything else over the past four or five years, I still haven’t really got a grasp of the man behind croaky voice, obscure lyrical themes, and that guitar playing. Would finally seeing him live crack open that mystery?


First things first. Gig-goers in London – please take note. That nice, if somewhat kooky, lady up on the stage is trying to perform. Please don’t talk loudly all the way through her performance. It’s not nice. Bless Lavender Diamond though, she did try and get everyone singing, and nearly succeeded.

Lavender Diamond and her Flowery Guitar Tuner

Lavender Diamond and her Flowery Guitar Tuner

It was a fantastic gig. M is a compelling performer, the band around him were excellent, and you can’t help but be astonished at what this man can do on a guitar. Opening with “Chinese Translation”, we were treated to the marvellous warm sound of his fingerstyle playing, bursting into a three-or-so minute solo. Some stomping tunes from the disappointing “Hold Time” followed, which sound a little better live than they do on the album, before he settled into playing some of his rather enviously huge back catalogue.

Really, a man this untouched by mainstream success shouldn’t have such a fantastic set of songs. “Poison Cup” was simply astonishing; coming after his acoustic set (which I shall return to, don’t you worry), the song burst to life, almost exploding from the tension. “To Save Me”, one of the few highlights of “Hold Time”, had M hunched over the piano looking like an even more deranged Jerry Lee Lewis. “Post War”, the first moment of calm in the set, was gorgeous, and showed M’s unexpected vocal range.

And then there’s the acoustic part. “Fuel for Fire” featured that rarest of things – a good harmonica solo. The medley which featured “Duet for Guitars #3” was absolutely jaw-dropping. This YouTube video gives some indication of what he can do:

Frankly, when you see it live, you just can’t believe your eyes. What this man can do with an acoustic guitar is beyond belief. I don’t think I’ve been that amazed by one man’s guitar playing since seeing Durutti Column years ago. I urge you to go to the man’s show, just to see what he can do. Jaw-dropping dexterity. And a lovely guitar too. I quite fancy one of them. It’s a Gibson Johnny A Signature. No, me neither.

One Of These In Black Please, Dear Santa Claus

One Of These In Black Please, Dear Santa Claus

On a side note, what the hell is going on at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire? Two guys behind us were dragged out of the crowd for taking photos, and the roadie point blank refused to give me and another chap the set list. Very odd.

Sorry, going off-topic a bit there.

But all through the night I was thinking “There’s something odd about him”. The first clue to his odd behaviour came during a re-wording of “Magic Trick”, by singing “I’ve got one magic trick……I disappear”.

M Ward Himself

M Ward Himself

Then the night’s finisher “To Go Home”, a song not even his own, which provides the biggest clue. It’s that line “I’ll be true to you\Oh yeah, you know I will\I’ll be true to you forever or until\I go home”. That’s it with M. You know he’s only there to play his songs, and he plays them fantastically, with energy and dexterity, but there’s also a look in his eyes that tells us he doesn’t need us. When he goes home, he’s got his music, his 45’s to play at night.

You can see it in the strange gleam in his eye as he plays the piano, lost inside his own world filled with the rapture of the sound he can make. You can see it in the half-smile as he turns sideways, away from the audience. You can see it in the way he hardly acknowledges his band. It’s not that he’s unhappy up there, far from it, but you sense he’d be just as happy playing to an empty theatre.

What’s odder is that he’s probably the most prolific collaborator around at the moment, what with Jim James and Zooey Deschanel and Jenny Lewis and whoever else passes his way. What an odd fellow. But also a great talent, and someone definitely not to be missed.

“God, it’s great to be alive\Takes the skin right off my hide\To think I’ll have to give it all up someday”. Those words have been coming back to me for the past two days, as sung by a man close to genius, who we need more than he needs us.

MP3: To Go Home by M Ward

MP3: To Save Me by M Ward

Postscript: Our friend D, who had previously taken us to see the Stereophonics, came along as we had a spare. Having never heard of M Ward before, she loved it (who wouldn’t?) and asked what albums she should get. I said, “Transfiguration of Vincent, Transistor Radio and Post-War”. Sadly Post-War doesn’t seem to be on Amazon at the moment, so here are the rest:

Buy “Transfiguration of Vincent” (CD)

Buy “Transistor Radio” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Hold Time” (CD/MP3)

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Review – Hold Time by M. Ward

Hold Time comes at a critical moment for M. Ward. His profile has slowly been building up over five albums, with songs ranging from ragtime (Duet for Guitars #2), fascinating covers (Let’s Dance, To Go Home by Daniel Johnson, and Well Tempered Clavier by, er, Bach), campfire songs (Fuel For Fire), to soulful country rock (Outta My Head, Hi-Fi). An amazing guitarist (have a look at the YouTube clip below – just look at those fingers! See how he can suddenly turn from smashing out chords to fine fingerpicking in an instant), he’s head and shoulders above most other singer-songwriters around these days.

This is his sixth full album, and follows on from his work with Zooey Deschanel as She and Him. He’s been getting big props from everyone from Conor Oberst to Noel Gallagher. He’s been recording, producing and co-writing songs with the likes of John Fahey, Norah Jones, Jason Lytle and Neko Case, so his alt-rock credentials are about as high as they can get.

So, is this the album that finally propels him into the big time?*

Well, I’m not sure. M Ward albums have always had this lovely ancient crackly quality to them, making them sound like something dredged up from the bottom of the Hudson river from 1947. Even on Post War, his most modern sounding album, it still felt like a window to a lost world. But Hold Time seems largely lifeless and lacking in the soul that filled his previous records. Much as I love the variety of his writing, he’s starting to sound like he’s simply running through the numbers here; “Hold Time” and the cover (featuring Lucinda Williams) “Oh Lonesome Me” excepted. “Oh Lonesome Me” in particular shines through, sounding like She And Him should have been if he’d recruited a vocalist who could sing and had a sense of timing, rather than being Auto-Tuned into soulless oblivion.

But for the rest, the outlook isn’t so good. “For Beginners” sounds like it was knocked off in a couple of minutes (irony?). “Never Had Nobody Like You” is a lazy glam-stomp, and not necessarily in a good way. “Jailbird” starts to show some of the old M magic, but starts to drown under a sea of strings. And so it goes.

Could be that I’m just being harsh. It’s tough for any artist to have a run that lasts for more than three or four great albums. But to me, Hold Time sounds a little too dashed-off, as though he’s been so distracted by everything else going on that he’s forgotten to write the kind of album that got him noticed to start off with. There isn’t as much of the fantastic fingerpicking and inventive songwriting that so characterised his last few records. Worst of all, this album just hasn’t grown on me in the way that Transfiguration of Vincent, or Transistor Radio, or Post War did. Am I expecting too much?

In any case, I really do hope that other people listen to this and love it, and start to explore his older work. And I really do hope it doesn’t put people off, for M Ward’s music is (almost always) something to treasure.

Hold Time by M Ward

Oh Lonesome Me by M Ward featuring Lucinda Williams

*Something that would help would be to play bigger venues in London. You’ve just sold out the Academy, and the Bush Hall show sold out in minutes, so why not play somewhere bigger like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, so more of us can actually come and see you? Come on mate, sort it out.

Quick Post – M Ward, Arsenal, iPhone

A really quick post this morning.

I’ve managed to listen to a copy of M. Ward’s new album, Hold Time. What’s to say? He’s a fantastic guitarist, a great songwriter, but after one listen it’s difficult to say anything other than it sounds like an M Ward album. Bet you’re glad you read that, eh? Anyway, title track below.

Arsenal are continuing their descent down the Premier League, still in fifth but now five points behind lucky, lucky, but annoyingly quite good Aston Villa. I wish we’d bought Aghbonglahor in the summer. West Ham tomorrow should be a fun game, and by fun, I mean a dreadful waste 90 minutes watching us huff and puff against less skilful but better organised and motivated opposition, with us winning 1-0 after Bendtner gets one in off his arse in the 93rd minute.

And I see Apple have decided to update the iPhone firmware. Oh my lord. And mine’s updating now, so it’ll probably go horribly wrong and BSOD my PC.

Hold Time by M. Ward