Sunday, May 8, 2011

M. Ward: End of Amnesia (2001)

(Future Farmer)


How hard is it to put "pretty" on record? Brilliant at it though they might be, Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, and Owen Pallett make it sound like an intimidating, herculean task fit for only the most agile among us. But Matt Ward, as early as this sophomore album, seems naturally capable of it with less effort than it takes for Justin Bieber to break a teenage heart. Not the superhuman Mr. or Mrs. Incredible of Newsom or Stevens, he always sounds like a Regular Everyman -- he's you and me, and he can't sing much better than we can. But he presents his sliding, slinky folk rock as an Eno-like seduction; breathlessly gorgeous background music, the sound of bourgeois wallpaper introspection -- which is what more background music should aspire for.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the most striking moments on End of Amnesia have nothing to do with the vocal melodies, which are lovely but mostly overshadowed. It's no accident that the instrumental (or mostly instrumental) songs come off strongest; the singing sounds labored on the more structured cuts. At their best, Ward's vocals are casual and scattered, as on the down-home comfortable "Color of Water," which sways thanks to his ace guitar technique while the vocals quietly croak througha nd weave with the chords. Beyond that, the richest pleasures are on the title track, a gentle ditty with the three-piece lineup of piano, guitar and atmosphere, "Psalm" with its expressive, ghostly guitar line, and "Silverline," which amps up th eadventure with left-field descension and the most impressive guitar work on the record (plus spookily possessed, barely audible vocals).

Voodoo and speaking in tongues might run counter to the record's laid-back persuasion, but Ward doesn't want it so simple; the entire album is backgrounded by a distant hiss of noises enveloping and obscure, like old movies and nearby circuses are proceeding behind the music. The odd Fogerty and Ryan Adams-quoting stomp "Flaming Heart" leaves you longing for its carnival-like intro. "Half Moon" seems to open someplace in the 1920s with a faint shred of the last lonely note of some big band jazz number before the sound slowly builds from seductive mystery to full-band, with pounding drums and what sounds like pedal steel but probably isn't. That slow attainment of rhythm carries through on the next cut, "So Much Water," continuing the river-music obsession. Ward expertly captures the feel of classicist folk (mastering it later on the almost supernaturally antiquated "From a Pirate Radio Sermon, 1989," though that one is spoiled somewhat by a silly MOR chorus) while his whispery double tracking gives off breathy Elliott Smith-like tones.

Ward's ambitions clearly lie outside the scope of the record even at this point. "Bad Dreams" carefully gives the illusion of four-track production before the curtain lifts to reveal an unsubtle polish, not the most persuasive sound of musical improvement. The most complete song, "Carolina," is likely to perk up the ears of Mountain Goats or Eels fans, but more telling are its faroff shreds of AM radio glory, a sentimental affinity Ward would later explore to mixed results on his She & Him albums with Zooey Deschanel.

End of Amnesia is just a tad too long, particularly given its wispy textures that would seem to demand a certain brevity. Fourteen songs (running nearly an hour total) is a lot to digest of music that largely sidesteps great variance. And there's something unnatural about the last three tracks, which is deathly for music so reliant on its perceived simplicity. The harmonica on "Ella" suggest a somewhat labored folk lexicon quest that feels false; "Seashell Tale" is rather overly cutesy and homey, not unlike Paul McCartney's first album; and the storytelling suite stunt "O'Brien / O'Brien's Nocturne" is over the top in its explicit nostalgia (here comes 1989 again, rendered with Bryan Adams-like excessive shorthand longing). Nevertheless, even without cutting this material off the end, the record's sense of restraint as means to folkish beauty is impressive and endearing.

Ward's real winners still lay ahead at this point; Post-War and Transistor Radio display a confidence and individualism that can't be touched here. But he lays the groundwork on End of Amnesia, and taken on its own it's sheer delight. Even if it might threaten to rock you to sleep.

Duet for Guitars #2 (1999)

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