Friday, August 27, 2010

M. Ward: Duet for Guitars #2 (1999)

(Ow Om [orig] / Merge [reissue])


Back in the Nineties, Matt Ward was just one of many acoustic folkies searching for a niche. The album he recorded before the wispy, barbed elements of his best material fell into place, Duet for Guitars #2, might have sounded like nothing special in 1999, but hindsight benefits it. It's possible, with knowledge of brilliant records like Post-War and Hold Time, to approach it as prologue, an identity that suits its elegant, whispered prettiness and tentative melodic quirks.

It also gives ample opportunity to appreciate Ward's guitar playing before it became somewhat iconic. It's great fun to hear the idle strums on the instrumentals, and the calm but insistent chiming everywhere, particularly the slightly Lennonesque "Who May Be Lazy." And dig the Leonard Cohen lick and tonal experimentation on "It Won't Happen Twice." Despite the clear appropriations of these forefathers' ideas, the record mostly sounds ahead of its time, setting a table of sorts for the introspective, quietly ambitious compositions from Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens that would light the world up in the next several years.

That said, Duet is still mostly a throwback, and it isn't particularly unique in this sense -- the mixtape-ready "Scene from #12" is half a step away from being an outtake from Beck's One Foot in the Grave, accurately paring down his abrasive folk melodies to a slightly sweeter and more cleanly recorded vocal-guitar combo. Those are gentle Elliott Smithisms you're hearing on the appealingly named "He Asked Me to Be a Snake and Live Underground," a fine song that simply doesn't have much lasting impact. One shouldn't underestimate, of course, the value of something that sounds familiar without being old: "Beautiful Car" features some of Ward's most nuanced double-tracked vocals, and its lyrical suggestions of the Beach Boys' "Ballad of Ole' Betsy" and "This Car of Mine" offer charm to spare.

Ward also exhibits an admirable economy in his songwriting; the achingly beautiful "Good News" and the singsong drone "Fishing Boat Song" could each be a couple of minutes longer without really wearing out their welcome, but they make their respective points and move on. Best of all is the minimal production on "Look Me Over," completely amazing scrappy Euro-folk that has to be one of Ward's greatest songs ever. All of the flourishes he indulges in elsewhere step out of the way for the wonderful churn and elegance of his melody and craft on this one.

"Look Me Over" and "Good News" might be the only truly great cuts here, but there's nothing on the record that's not intriguing and appealing; for sure, I think this is at least as essential as either of Ward's She & Him albums with Zooey Deschanel. It won't blow your mind, but it doesn't want to; it wants to be friends, and as lovely and occasionally hypnotic dinner music, it's a notable success.

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