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M. Ward
Hold Time Daniel Ross , February 19th, 2009 11:32

M. Ward remains irretrievably in the thrall of his influences. This has not always been the case (his earlier work on Howe Gelb's Ow Om label, though derivative and sketchy, contained a spark and twang all his own), but had seemed to be an emerging pattern on recent recordings. Brian Wilson, commissioned songwriters of the 50s, railroads, Buddy Holly... a long list of fragrant and worthy wells from which to draw.

Yet Hold Time necessarily makes small augmentations to the Ward framework that we've become used to, largely by being more expansive and a mite more ambitious. At times there's even something of a swagger to the performances, particularly on the Bolan-esque shuffle of 'Never Had Nobody Like You'. Its joyous simplicity, shot through with lackadaisical delivery, is judged well, and it was the right thing to do to make it so short, even throwaway. Elsewhere, thunderous synth arpeggios and castanets on 'To Save Me' show buoyancy to be a key new tool. That's not to say that Ward's oeuvre tends toward slower tempi, rather he's using these propulsive new sounds to reach further on this record than any of his previous outings.

This is especially so in the case of Brian Wilson, who seems to permeate Ward's music from the gorgeous 'Ella' (from End Of Amnesia) until now. For 'To Save Me' has the requisite “do-do-doos” of The Beach Boys most iconographic works, but those “do-do-doos” feature a raised seventh that Wilson may have deemed too emotionally revealing, for it lends a wistful edge. That Ward is allowing his influences to serve what he wishes to express in his own work, rather than letting them cloud the results, is the mark of a writer increasingly comfortable with his own sound, viewing it alongside the back-catalogues he admires rather than as inferior to them.

On Ward's take on Don Gibson's 'Oh Lonesome Me' you can hear the scratch of the bottleneck on the guitar strings as if it were in the room, but guest Lucinda Williams' voice is drenched in reverb and the expert string arrangements gently lift off the planet in another hazy tribute to Brian Wilson. Indeed, the fact that it's a loose vocal duet emphasises this balancing act – humanising and impressing in equal measure.

Those looking for Hold Time to be a logical continuation of Ward's album trajectory so far will be extremely satisfied. There's a whole host of little surprises along the way, what with Zooey Deschanel and Jason Lytle turning up, and Bella Union wunderkind Peter Broderick sorting out some of the string arrangements, but why boil it down to mere selling points? Hold Time is full of sweet intrigue and stapled shut with intimate references to Ward's musical heritage, a bold tapestry of all that he has become.