Saturday, September 24, 2011

M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)



This record is new to me, and I'm delighted to discover that this and not Transistor Radio from a couple of years later is Matt Ward's artistic breakthrough. On his third album, he proves himself already a master of texture and a cinematic, dreamlike mood that is completely irresistible. From the opening sound of crickets chirping, these fifteen admirably concise tracks whisper in and out but never collapse under their ambience, and provide a showcase for both Ward's humongous guitar gifts and his attraction to bedroom-pop production in the vein of Nick Drake without succumbing to the gimmicry that often marred his prior effort, End of Amnesia.

"Transfiguration #1" is a piano-complemented Floyd Cramer imitation, a stage-setter of sorts, before Ward sets in with stirringly pretty ballads that easily compete with his influences, from the singer-songwriters of the '70s to Yo La Tengo. Ward's resistance to cop to pure sentimentality is a welcome change from his earlier work; whereas "Vincent O'Brian" might once have finally come across as mawkish, he buries under enough electric guitar and drums to make its nostalgia endearing and welcome, never cloying. At his best, though, he is unafraid of a stomping folk-rock that, on "Helicopter" and "Fool Says," verges on psychedelia. He's also unexpectedly witty; witness the filtered drone of the Johnny Cash burlesque "Sad, Sad Song," the jazzy barroom charm of "Poor Boy, Minor Key," the thrilling fusion of country-blues and chamber pop on "Get to the Table on Time."

The record doesn't divide itself convincingly into songs, but they're here if you need them; the melodies here are more persuasive than is usual for Ward's output, before or since (with a brighter arrangement, "A Voice at the End of the Line" could work as a She & Him track; "Let's Dance" is unabashed prom night stuff). It's more likely that you'll find the ambience so enjoyable that you'll simply let the whole thing play through. And that's certainly a virtue not to be taken lightly. Just don't assume that just because the thing is pretty, it's passable purely on that basis; pay close attention and you'll find this no less rewarding.

Duet for Guitars #2 (1999)
End of Amnesia (2001)

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