Review: A Wasteland Companion (M. Ward)

“And it’s joy, honey / Pure joy, uh-huh / Pure joy just to see you again…” — from “Pure Joy.”

And so it is with this pure joy that the gorgeous, aching, ageless music of M. Ward returns to our ears once more. The honey-voiced poet has spent the past few years touring and recording with two other projects: She & Him (he = M. Ward, she = Zooey Deschanel) and Monsters of Folk (a collaborative project, also featuring members of My Morning Jacket and Bright Eyes). Ward’s last solo release, Hold Time, was a seemingly-endless three years ago; and he finally returns this year with his seventh release, the trusty A Wasteland Companion.

The Companion begins with a tribute to the late, great Alex Chilton (leader of the critically-acclaimed, classic rock outfit Big Star), a tender tune with the title of “Clean Slate.” “‘Cause I only have to wait a little while before I … Get my… Clean slate.” — Ward’s classically-trained fingerpicking concurs softly thereafter. His voice sounds closer and clearer than ever, his guitar sounds more dynamic and colourful than before, and his lyrics exude classicality naturally and fluently in ways that perhaps even Post-War didn’t fully illustrate.

Mid-album track “The First Time I Ran Away” is also a mellifluous triumph for M. Ward and his Wasteland Companion. Dreamy guitar strums instantly translate to a hazy canvas background of warm mahoganies and brick reds — The bass surfaces from the depths with lush violet swirls and heavy blues. “The first time I ran away.. I saw faces in the trees.. I heard voices in the stars… They say, ‘Oooooohh, oooohhh…'” — A mist of radiant royal purples and midnight blues rain from the canvas’s northern-most borders. Little touches of electric yellow pierce the dark soundscape, carefully traced by mid-to-high register guitar notes. Distant timpani reverberations propel the masterpiece forward and forward until its winning end. It’s breathtaking, bittersweet, and absolute bliss on vinyl.

Other grand highlights include the mysterious fable “Me & My Shadow,” the palpably poignant lament “Crawl After You,” and the chilling narrative “Watch the Show.” The last of this list concerns a (presumedly fictional) television network employee who hijacks his network’s station in an attempt to seek retribution for his lost years “inserting laughter after every punch-line” — And it is a sonic delight and a lyrical masterpiece.

Accumulatively, A Wasteland Companion is another successful release from the master of timeless lo-fi. Vinyl is preferable, lossless audio is the next best thing.

★★★★☆ 4 stars (out of 5 stars)

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Review: A Very She & Him Christmas (She & Him)

She & Him — Actress Zooey Deschanel (She) and indie darling M. Ward (Him).

Our indie sweethearts She & Him have previously proffered two other full-length releases— The aptly-titled Volume One and Volume Two. While their latest release is a holiday-themed outing, A Very She & Him Christmas appears to fit in quite snugly with their previous volumes in both sound and sincerity.

As usual, Deschanel takes her vocal arrangement cues from Beach Boys-era Brian Wilson, whilst Mr. Ward plays the quietly charming classical guitar virtuoso who gives the songs’ soundscapes their classic flavor.

The duo recreate a solid list of traditional Christmas tunes; including “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and even Elvis’s “Blue Christmas.” Deschanel and Ward additionally cover a few of their own favorite lesser-known holiday tunes for the occasion, such as “Little Saint Nick” (originally by The Beach Boys).

The majority of the duo’s interpretations are fairly distinct and memorable (not to mention, simple) in the arrangement department— Especially the ukulele-led “Silver Bells,” the harmony-hosted “Little Saint Nick,” and the jazz-injected “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Now, some don’t quite hit the spot, as is the case with the shockingly awkward “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (yes, I KNOW), the wincingly twee “Sleigh Ride,”  and the humdrum “Christmas Wish.” All in all, though, She & Him present a thoughtful and original take on a great set of Christmas tunes.

Definitely notable, perhaps most-so in a holiday playlist with other “indie”-minded groups.

A Vinyl Moment, #1 Entry

Allow me to introduce myself. Hi. My name is Matt. I love music, and I love records more than just about anything else, separate or combined. For me, there is nothing like the sound of the needle-to-record splendor, nor will ever any digital system be able to authentically mimic this sacred analog bliss.

I currently have a modest vinyl collection; an estimation of around 50-75 records or so, not including singles. It’s growing though, and my entertainment center can’t quite keep up at the moment.

Today, I’m going to tell you about my favorite records. I have a seasoned suspicion that some of these “favorites” will depart from my favor at some point in time, but for now, my selections are as follows:

1.) The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle. #80 on Rolling Stone’s top albums of all time. I’d personally knock it up to #40 or so. “Time of the Season” and “Care of Cell 44” were just written for the savor of the spin, and the cohesion and classicality of the album is superior to nearly every other British invasion-period production. This is a 1997, standard-weight re-issue; but it is transferred from the original analog tracks, and is therefore marvelously authentic and agreeable by any collector/audiophile’s standards.

2.) The Beatles: Abbey Road. From where I’m sitting, I would easily champion Abbey Road over Sgt. Pepper’s. I know it’s an uncommon perspective, but Abbey Road is far more concise and includes many of their truly timeless compositions (“Here Comes the Sun,” “Oh! Darling,” “Something,” “Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight”). This one is clearly essential, but I do not recommend the re-issue, on which I wound up squandering my hard-earned wages. I would highly suggest hunting down an original pressing, or even tracking down an “Original Master Recording” edition, the latter of which is a bit rare and typically expensive (but more than worth the trouble).

3.) Jack’s Mannequin: Everything In Transit. This misfit is especially significant on account of its extreme rarity. Once, perhaps twice a year, you may be able to catch a glimpse of one of these beauties surfacing soundlessly on eBay. Closing bids typically end in the $300+ range. Not only is it a fairly critically acclaimed pop-punk masterpiece, but it just begs for the analog warmth and splendor that a 2 LP set offers.

4.) David Bowie: Hunky Dory. Don’t laugh— I love Bowie. Sure, “Queen Bitch” is a peculiar and wicked temper-tentrum of sorts, and “Life on Mars?” is entirely overdramatic. Noted, glam-rock 70’s can’t be summed up any better than this. Mine’s an original pressing, but I hear there’s a 150g remaster floating around internet marketplaces. Your choice, really.

5.) Big Star: Radio City. If you’re a music lover / vinyl collector / audio appreciator, and you DON’T own this.. Well, let’s just stay positive and acknowledge that you “require” this. Radio City is, by many standards, the quintessential Big Star record. “Daisy Glaze,” “September Gurls,” “O My Soul”… The list of sonic perfection literally ranges from track one to track twelve. Not only is it a perfect record, but both Radio City and #1 Record have semi-recently been re-issued on absolutely stunning 200g, heavy-weight, vinyl gold. (Not literal gold, but you catch my drift here.) Warning: Once you listen to this record in its high-fidelity glory, don’t expect to have any desire to return to the 256kbps AAC/MP3 digital farce you once knew as “acceptable.”

6.) M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent. I remember vividly the first time I heard Transfiguration… I hadn’t heard an album so captivating and so intimate since The Joshua Tree. Needless to say, Master Ward knows exactly what he’s doing, production-wise, and so it only felt natural to seek out a vinyl edition. Fifteen bucks, Jealous Butcher, 180g. Basically ideal in the most commonplace way possible.

So, there you have it. Any other avids out there with a collection to share?