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.

Review: The Places We Ran From (Tired Pony)

“Stick to the formula” might be some of the worst advice ever.

While Snow Patrol has never exactly knocked me over with any of their bland, über-simplistic pop/rock songs, I was mildly interested to hear lead singer Gary Lightbody’s supposedly “epic” collaboration with superstars like Jacknife Lee, Peter Buck, and Zooey Deschanel on his “country”-tinged side-project, Tired Pony. The Places We Ran From, the album’s title muses.

Though Lightbody claims that Tired Pony is a side-project, many of these tunes could easily be Snow Patrol pieces. Opener “Northwestern Skies” strictly follows Lightbody’s typical melody-crafting mold— Lasso in about three or four notes, arrange them in an uncomplicated, amateurishly monotonous manner, tack on a falsetto note in a pitiful attempt to vary things up, and then repeat it, repeat it, repeat it.

Another prime example of this hackneyed methodology is slow-jam, second track “Get on the Road.” The track is dripping with surplus drama and actually loses momentum as the relentlessly elementary hook line is vocally projected louder and louder until….

….Yawn.

Granted, the production here effortlessly bests any given Snow Patrol proffer. Arrangements vary track to track, and mixing is meticulous across all tracks. But even the deep, dark soundscape painted in production of The Places We Ran From can’t fully mask the excess fat that abounds throughout the record.

For example, a handful of these tunes push the five-to-six minute mark (“The Deepest Ocean There Is,” “Get on the Road,” and “I am a Landslide”), and some even the seven (“Pieces” and “Held in the Arms of Your Words”). Lightbody’s melodic formula barely works in a three-to-four minute segment, but a five-to-seven?

Additionally, Lightbody works with entirely predictable chord progressions (see “The Good Book”) and summarizes playbook songwriter tricks, mindlessly ripping off his influences along the way. Lead single “Dead American Writers” is less a homage to rock’s first supergroup’s “Handle with Care,” and more of a “Dani California” from a “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Lastly; the artless, distortion-heavy guitar-string-scraping comprising the outro of finale “Pieces” shows just how little Lightbody understands about the art of writing music. What, are we a dark Radiohead now? “Scrape that guitar with your pick, man! That sounds really deep! Yeah, we’re making music!”

Mhmm.

While The Places We Ran From isn’t the worst album I’ve heard this year, it certainly isn’t one of the best I’ve heard this year either. A lot is left to be desired in the dreary aftermath of the Tired Pony hype; though, I suppose the expectations for such an attempt should not have been high to begin with.

72% / C-