M. Ward has always been an interesting interpreter of older material. Solo and as half of She and Him, Ward has sprinkled in covers of classics and standards throughout his career. So it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that he’s doing a tribute to Billie Holiday. It’s a little quirky to cover 1958’s Lady in Satin album in its entirety, but why not?
At the end of her career Holiday wanted to record a “pretty album, something delicate” so she enlisted easy listening bandleader Ray Ellis to arrange songs to match her voice that by this point had been damaged by years of substance abuse. Ward forgoes orchestration altogether and sticks to vocals and guitar. And, not surprisingly, it’s lovely.
He talked to Rolling Stone about what drew him to this album: “I heard Lady in Satin at a shopping mall. I had no idea what it was. Her voice sounded like distorted electric guitar paired with these really beautiful string arrangements. It was like something I’d never heard. The whole experience was kind of like a dream. […] I’ve been arranging these songs for 10 years, recording them for a couple of years. I was experimenting with different tunings to get the songs right for my voice. I was just trying my best to take my favorite elements of Ray Ellis’ arrangements and it took a lot of time.”
Anyone expecting Rod Stewart-style songbook schmaltz will be disappointed.
I don’t think it would be possible for Zooey Deschanel to be more adorable than she is in this video for the first single from Volume 2, due March 23 on Merge. I mean, come on. You better treat her nice, Gibbard—that’s all I’m sayin’…
Jim James: The only rule was that the four of us play everything on the record. So we played all the drums, all the bass—we didn’t hire any outside musicians. Conor Oberst: And we all sing on nearly every song, even if it’s just backup. M. Ward: That was a fun part of process—layering the vocals; finding common ground between vocals. Mike Mogis: That’s one of the standout features of the record. The songwriting is great, as well, but the sheer sonics of hearing these three people sing together… Oberst: It’s that old folk sound. [laughter] James: It’s just like Peter, Paul and what’s his face. [laughter]
Sounds like they’ve got the right attitude—not taking themselves too seriously. We’ve got a couple of videos after the jump, including a live version of “Say Please” plus a song that sounds a lot like American Beauty-era Grateful Dead.
The second single from Hold Time, “Rave On” is a breezy cover of the Buddy Holly classic (first recorded by Sonny West). Had Holly been neutered and forced at gunpoint into the studio with Phil Spector the results might sound similar to this. But as with most of M. Ward‘s stuff, it grows on you and you get more out of it the more you listen. The animated video was directed by Mike Please.
When everyone is talking “Buy Local” Portland is living it like nobody else. Everywhere you look are signs and bumper stickers imploring you to Support Local Businesses, and that applies to music. When people here tell you to Grow Your Own, it’s not just weed they’re talking about.
M.Ward is Portland’s own and everyone knows it. Sure, he moved to New Hampshire for a while but he’s back now and everyone just acts like that New England excursion was just an extended vacation but now he’s home…where he belongs.
At the end of the year, we’re offering up some MP3s that we never got around to posting for one reason or another. She & Him is Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward. And even though she’s an actress in real life, they made a real nice record together.
Ahh, the Bowery Ballroom. Sure, it’s tough to find–buried wwayyy downtown, in the only spot of New York that can be considered even slightly remote. But the sound is remarkable, by far the best in the city. This was evident by the strains of accordion flooding my ears from the sidewalk in front of the theater, a crystal-clear Eastern European shuffle that, as I climbed the stairs to the main floor, were identified as Devotchka, the first of two openers for M. Ward.
A dazzling quartet from Colorado who don’t focus on folk, or indie, or jazz but melds each equally in fascinating fashion, Devotchka owned the crowd from the start. The group’s singer, Nick Urata, sipping a bottle of wine as romantically as he propelled his starry voice across the spring night sky, spear-headed his group’s collection of urgent and lovelorn anthems as the collective shifted instrumentation all night. Pulling songs from their latest album, How it Ends (mp3), Devotchka had us all from the beginning. The theater’s perfect sound ensuring the beautiful transluscentry that Devotchka’s music deserves, it was all too tragic that the group had to depart, removing all the twinkly piano, starlit melody, and plaintive beauty from the air as quickly as they’d devoured our hearts.
A familiar melody chimes through the beginning of Transistor Radio, Matt Ward’s third album and follow-up to the extraordinary Transfiguration of Vincent. It’s the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe In Me,” re-created on two acoustic guitars. Although you can still pick fragments of the original’s sweetly melancholic arrangement out, Ward’s version has gathered some antique charm—it takes on a completely different personality in Ward’s hands. Which, perhaps, is his biggest asset—he knows the virtues of ambiguity. When exactly was this album recorded again?
His voice, which is downtrodden and just a little rusty, cracks over these mini-dirges with a timeless charm. Which makes it so difficult to pinpoint Ward’s sound, to pick words to describe it—on the surface, it’s incredibly simple-sounding. But delve deeper and you find that these songs have as many layers as a towering evergreen trunk carved into cross-section view. Ward turns the dial of his own transistor radio and captures the sound, atmosphere, and production of everything he picks up signal on—even if it means the monophonic haze of “One Life Away” (with Jim James) sounds ancient in comparison to the following track, the sweetly disorienting “Sweethearts on Parade.” Somehow, it all makes sense as a whole.
Transistor Radio bears a less introspective nature to its predecessor—nowhere is Ward hoping for “a voice at the end of the line,” instead taking on a more abstract, metaphorical lyrical tone that suits the evasive setting the songs take place in. But the shots Ward does take here hit hard—”Come back / My little peace of mind,” and “I’ve got lonesome fuel for fire” say so much with so little that I imagine all other so-called lyricists jealous that Ward got to these sentiments before they could.
Ward’s diverse yet strangely united, collective sound is blanketed with the rustic sense of rootsy, outdoors America—where the back-porch is still home, where the rocking chair sways softly in the breeze, where the sun sets over the horizon and you can see for miles over the amber landscape. Where the internet and digital cable aren’t even part of the vocabulary. And most importantly, where a man with an acoustic guitar can put you right in the middle of this serenity, despite honing his craft in the post-millennial age. When everything else today seemingly needs a blip or a beep, Ward is content letting the spirit of centuries past play his backing band, giving Transistor Radio the sweet spirit your history textbook is lacking.
An Evening of Solo and Collaborative Performances with Bright Eyes, Jim James, and M. Ward
Loew’s Theatre, Jersey City, February 24, 2004
The idea looked good on paper.
Bright Eyes, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward have hit the road with their iconic indie-rock melding of the minds. Conor Oberst, the face of Bright Eyes and oft-argued about troubadour, headlined the show at the grand Loew’s Theatre—a fully restored theatre from the 1920s that was holding its inaugural event on this night. Much of my criticism of the show, however, falls on Oberst’s shoulders. For one, although I’ve never been one to only want to hear the “hits,” the Omaha wunderkind only played two tracks from Lifted, his most popular and undoubtedly best album. “Waste of Paint” came at approximately the halfway point of Oberst’s set and was a shot in the arm for what had been a slow, meandering selection of older tracks. Its arrival was greeted warmly, receiving the biggest ovation of the night from a crowd seemingly screaming for more tracks from Lifted.