If you’ve ever listened to two Aimee Mann albums, you’ve no doubt been impressed (if not slightly unnerved) by the consistent quality of her work. She is one of the most consistent good performers in music; which, of course, means she’s not often great (although “Wise Up,” featured prominently in Magnolia, is one of the greatest songs ever recorded), but she is never, ever terrible or even bad. Some critics over at the big indie-rock websites have dismissed her with a collective eye-roll and “meh,” but I’m never one to fault someone for being very good at only one or two things.
Which is why I can say that M. Ward’s new album, Hold Time, is an alarmingly consistent, high-quality follow-up to 2007’s excellent Post-War. Like, Ms. Mann, M. Ward (the M. stands for Matt, a solid first name if ever I’ve heard one) has been trading in old school warble-folk for the better part of this young century and he’s not yet coughed up an unlistenable album. Yeah, you could hurl shouts of “more of the same” at him until you’re blue in the face, but I could play that game with you about your favorite band, no matter who they are, until the cows come home. Unless your favorite band is The Flaming Lips. It’s a matter of degrees and, as usual, what you like in your own subjective musical universe.
And I really like M. Ward. First off, he’s one helluva guitar player and not in the boring KennyG-esque Joe Satriani way, but in terms of sonic effectiveness; Ward never puts a note in a song that doesn’t need to be there. He plays with a brilliant musical economy – if our banks were run the way M. Ward plays guitar, we’d have no financial crisis. His voice is unique, endearing to his fans and annoying to his critics, often sounding like the long lost son of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. And his songs tread the old familiar ground of love, death, and spirituality with a wide-eyed wonder that few musicians can pull off.
That said, Hold Time carries few surprises for folks familiar with Ward’s work. There’s the strummy opener “For Beginners,” the stomping, clapping, “Never Had Nobody Like You” (featuring the She to Ward’s Him and Ben Gibbard fiance Zooey Deschanel on backing vocals – Zooey, you can marry whoever you want, but please please please make another She & Him record soon, okay?), and “Jailbird,” an old-school folk-pop tune that slightly resembles “Outta My Head,” from The Transfiguration of Vincent. None of these songs are revelations, though all of them are good.
The title track, on the other hand, is probably the biggest departure for Ward, and it’s three minutes of sprawling, dreamy beauty. “Hold Time” is a musical attempt to preserve the memory of a perfect evening and as an ode to love and the imminent failure of memory, it is unmatched. If any song on this album will win Ward new fans, it’s “Hold Time,” though I’m not sure what kind of people those fans are, especially considering that the video for hold time is one crying, smoking widow shy of being something straight out of Marguerite Duras.
Ward throws a couple of covers into the mix, and he’s usually great at picking ’em. On Post-War, he turned in a fantastic rendition of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home,” and on Transfiguration of Vincent, he treated us to a down-tempo, acoustic rendition of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”. So I had pretty high expectations for Hold Time‘s two covers, Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and the rollicking country classic “Oh Lonesome Me” (oddly enough, the best version of this song I’ve ever heard was done by The Kentucky Headhunters. Remember them? No, you don’t). “Rave On,” again featuring Deschanel, delivers. “Oh Lonesome Me,” featuring Lucinda Williams, does not.
On paper, one could see how Lucinda Williams and M. Ward doing “Oh Lonesome Me” might be a great idea. With those two voices, you could turn in a breezy, stomping good tune, say about two or three minutes in length. However, in Hold Time‘s only misstep, Ward and Williams spend six minutes on a slow, meandering rendition of “Oh Lonesome Me” where their voices never quite seem to gel (and it sounds like Williams has no control over her voice).
Thematically, Ward is still sing about time, love, death, and god, and his spiritual side is more in evidence on Hold Time than it has been on his previous efforts. Ward’s is a non-annoying, folksy sort of spirituality that can dig the fisher of men metaphor (on the appropriately titled “Fisher of Men”) and still ask why the hell god doesn’t, you know, do more, being that he’s all powerful ‘n’ shit (see “To Save Me”, a bouncing good time featuring Jason Lytle of the now defunct Grandaddy, a band I could never quite manage to like). Where your standard Christiany rock acts (ahem *Jars of Clay* ahem) want to marry Jeebus and have a thousand of his babies, one gets the feeling that Ward digs the metaphor but is probably not interested in signing up for your newsletter.
Like Aimee Mann, it’s hard to go wrong with an M. Ward album, but Hold Time is on a par with his best work, that being The Transfiguration of Vincent. Why? Because these two albums contain more truly great tunes where his others contain merely good ones. If that can’t start an argument among the indie intelligentsia, I don’t know what can.