M. Ward, Transistor Radio (Merge Records)

by Stephanie Duncan

With folk coming into itself as of recently, you might think M. Ward is ready to step from the shadows himself. But there's more to the man than simplicity. On his latest, Transistor Radio, he goes through the golden era of radio. Often describing himself as a guitarist first and a singer second, at times it is his voice that cements the short vignettes of songs together. Only a handful of the tracks even top three minutes but instead of working against, it works in pull of the general theme of the album.

Ward's voice is at times raw, sweet and old-fashioned purposely. His dusty voice can crack at the slightest note. Each track is dinstinctly Ward's but it is the tone of the voice and the sound of the instruments that signifies change and movement. His profienciency with the guitar can't be questioned; he even opens with an instrumental version of the Beach Boys' "You Still Believe in Me". Further proof that he's not quite folk like his musical compatriates such as Devendra Banhart. This, at times, underplayed expertise with the guitar is showcased by his finger-plucked, almost classical style; a rarity in today's scene.

Sometimes there are faraway violins, as if recorded back in the nineteen thirties, again, what he was going for. It's a great look at the history of American music which could be played off as unoriginal but Ward makes it his with steel guitars and a deft, unique flavour all his own. Big Boat entertains simple piano chords emulating something closer to fifties bop than folk. The piano scales while Ward and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley sing in harmony, more proof that his rusty voice is really the highlight. While it is his intention, he makes his influences of early American music apparent throughout the whole album as well as artists like the Beach Boys. There's even some old-timey pianos to take you back the good old days-- that of the American West, the cinematic and cultural ideal. Regeneration #1 rollicks with a blue-grass style that captures you in little over one minute. Other songs have that country twang. Strangely enough, even Jordan Hudson from the Thermals plays along with Ward-- furthering Ward's distance from the genre of 'folk'. I'll be yr bird is in the vein of Iron&Wine, the home-recorded soft fuzz and intimate vocals. And finally, Lullaby and Exile, a soft, moving good-bye and a surprisingly perfect end to an album.

There's a huge range of sound on this album which could have come off as clumsy but didn't. It's easy to listen to and showcases everything from light classical styled guitars to heavy, bleary-eyed blues.

March 2005