March 12, 2009

Test Spin: M. Ward

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Just when the heyday of alt-country seems to have faded, M. Ward’s Hold Time comes along to reinvigorate the genre. The album feels deeply rooted in traditional gospel, blues and country music, less afraid to let its twangy side hang out than many first generation “alt” acts. “Fisher of Men” resurrects the spirit of Johnny Cash, for example, while several of the songs on the album are covers that have been entirely taken apart and put back together. “Oh Lonesome Me” rearranges a famous country song by Don Gibson. With Lucinda Williams providing guest vocals in a duet, the song has been slowed down to a groggy, hungover, lovesick warble, sounding bleak and spare despite the addition of an elaborate classical strings section.
“Outro” is an instrumental remake of the blues standard “I’m a Fool to Want You,” incorporating muzzy chords and a bit of crashing feedback distortion. “Rave On” updates a Buddy Holly classic, ironically exacerbating the country elements in the ’50s original while at the same time knowingly recontextualizing the lyrics to refer to a techno rave. “Epistemology” directly addresses the necessity of misreading old texts — that is, the need for remakes and covers — in its bluesy spiritual about a Catholic school boy interpreting St. Paul’s epistles as a path to romantic salvation.
There’s quite a breadth of styles on the album, making it far more than just an urban cowboy retrofitting his grandfather’s record collection. While “Stars of Leo” begins with synth tones twinkling in the background of old-fashioned country guitar and storytelling, it eventually ramps up with the addition of an indie keyboard riff and the edgier growl of a chorus. “Blake’s View” and “Shangri-La” are folksy while “Jailbird” and “One Hundred Million Years” reminds one of the back-porch blues of Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson. The title track, on the other hand, features a haunted, orphic voice wandering amid an orchestral soundscape of strings and jazzy keyboard, layering long, stretched-out textures to create a sonic region of lost souls. Throughout the album, time is indeed held still, and the new made to sound old again.