M. WARD – Hold Time

M Ward began releasing albums in 1999 and slowly gained a devoted core of fans, but he only started to receive regular media attention approximately ten years in to his career.  This was helped no end by his collaboration with Zooey Deschanel, resulting in the gorgeous (and timeless) ‘She & Him, Volume One’. ‘Hold Time’ is Ward’s sixth solo album and its collection of folk-pop nuggets – sometimes a little rough around the edges with their home-recorded feel – gives fans a record which sounds exactly like they’d expect from the outset.

The opening track ‘For Beginners’ offers sparse acoustic work and doesn’t really get things moving too quickly, though it is very traditional Ward with its 60s influenced shuffle.  Vocally, Ward adopts a trusty, softly delivered tone and its arrival sounds like an old friend even from the very first listen. From soft beginnings, ‘Never Had Nobody Like You’ offers something a little more upbeat. With a great deal of homeliness, the tune would be one of the album’s most memorable based on melodies alone, but the addition of Zooey Deschanel on harmony vocals just makes it unmissable.  As you may expect, the combination of retro pop/folk, Zooey and a generally sunny vibe makes this track sound like it belongs with the other She & Him sessions.  Zooey makes a second appearance on a mid-paced cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’, which is fun, yet inessential.  While Matt & Zooey’s covers are always meticulously performed, it’s much preferable to hear them tackling their self-written material, whether separately or together.

‘One Hundred Years’ features some pleasant finger-picked guitar and a musical sparseness which almost makes the main tune non-existent; even Ward’s vocal is delivered with a fragility which is more obvious than usual. The end result is an album highlight, a track that’s so twee it’s almost impossible to listen to it without smiling.  ‘Jailbird’ is home to an unassuming, yet somehow truly memorable tune – the acoustic elements topped by layers of mellotron for a slighty dirgy retro-cool.  Long term fans will recognise this pair of numbers as Ward at his finest – and while breaking no obvious new ground, he still manages to provide maximum listening enjoyment.

The title track focuses on droning sounds and a troubled vocal. Whilst the end result sounds very like Mercury Rev on a downer, it also recalls a darkness present in the mid-late 60s work of Brian Wilson.  It’s so musically heavy (in tone as opposed to any actual noisiness) that it’s almost left entirely to Ward to carry the piece vocally.  An oddity among a collection of softer material, it certainly sticks out – but not necessarily always in a good way.  Wilson also provides an influence clearly present in the very upbeat ‘To Save Me’.  Stabbing pianos recall old time rock ‘n’ roll, while mandolins bring in Ward’s strong folk influences.  These musical flourishes wouldn’t normally make anyone thing of The Beach Boys, but a wordless “do do do” backing vocal (delivered by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle) is a dead ringer for ‘Do It Again’.  Also providing respite from the album’s introspective nature, ‘Stars of Leo’ features a lovely optimistic tone, another charming vocal and an almost timeless pop appeal. Its staccato guitar parts and simple drumming provide a great base for Ward to build upon.  With some great elements including electric piano, tubualar bells and kettle drums, the piece eventually reaches an epic climax.  Near perfection, the only thing which would have improved it would have been a vocal part from Deschanel, but by that climax, there’s barely any room for any more additions…

The chick-a-boom of ‘Fisher of Men’ and a duet with Lucinda Williams on a cover of Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ explore a love for old country; while the former is unobtrusive but fairly breezy and the latter full of self-pity (in a way that only old-school country can provide without sounding like parody), both tracks suit the overall mood of the record perfectly.  While it could be said ‘Outro (aka I’m a Fool To Want You)’ attempts to bring the album something markedly different with its instrumental moodiness, it’s best described as filler material.   Yes, Ward’s easily distinguiahable, echoed and retro guitar is impeccably played, but it ambles for almost four minutes before bringing the disc to a downbeat close.  It’s a track which, after one or two spins, you’ll likely skip in favour of hearing the likes of ‘Nobody Like You’, ‘For Beginners’ or ‘Fisher of Men’ an extra couple of times.

‘Hold Time’ may not feel as well-rounded as its immediate predecessor (2006’s ‘Post War’), due to the inclusion of a couple of covers, but that’s not to say it’s inferior.  It just could possibly be more slow-burning and introspective, if that’s possible.   If you’ve followed M Ward’s career from early on, you’ll almost certainly own ‘Hold Time’ by now and have picked out a few cast-iron favourites of your own. As for everyone else, if you like Giant Sand and other alt-country/folk stuff with lo-fi qualities, you may want to give this a listen. It’s hard to imagine Ward is ever going to break through to mainstream superstardom (even with the help of She & Him), but this album makes his place as one of the alt-folk scene’s heroes ever more unshakable.

January 2010/March 2012