M. Ward’s ‘Hold Time’ diverse

By Evan Minsker

Matt Ward, better known as M. Ward, has been doing an excellent job lately of keeping the singer-songwriter genre out of the dumpster. Whether he’s jamming with Jenny Lewis and My Morning Jacket or making eloquent arrangements that hearken back to an earlier American sound with Zooey Deschanel, he’s proven himself to be a gift to the genre.

Hot off the heels of his She & Him album, Volume One, it would take a lot of fancy footwork to record another fantastic Americana album. Luckily for us, Ward still has a lot of amazing songs and arrangements in his inventory.

Hold Time opens with “For Beginners,” a song with an ironically perfect title-new listeners of Ward’s music will know right away whether or not they like him after the first song. It’s quintessentially Ward. The vocals are simple, the guitar rolls along with a steady and dusty old riff, and the lyrics are rife with old Biblical archetypes (Mount Zion, the garden and “the kingdom”).

American music is nothing without an electric guitar. With his collaborating pal Zooey Deschanel singing back-up, he turns up the distortion and sings a simple love song, “Never Had Nobody Like You.” After the first listen, it starts to come across as overwrought.

Ward achieves the same dreamy feel on Hold Time that he had with his 2006 album, Post-War. His vocals echo in a way that shouldn’t exist in the waking world. I’m a huge sucker for the sound.

In the past, he tackled a song from The Beach Boys’ immortal Pet Sounds. On this album, he has the guts to cover “Rave On,” one of the biggest hits of the incredible Buddy Holly. He turns the straight-ahead rockabilly power of the original number into a slower, beach-pop song. The idea of it makes me cringe, but after listening to it a few times, I honestly don’t mind it. He takes Holly’s classic electric guitar performance and transforms it into his own old, hollow acoustic number.

Not every cover works astoundingly well, however. Ward duets with Lucinda Williams on the Don Gibson classic “Oh Lonesome Me.” Although it sounds like a great match, they sloppily fall over the words. Plus, their voices just don’t match. After hearing the gorgeous version Neil Young did with members of Crazy Horse on After the Gold Rush, this one is almost painful. Plus, it’s the longest number on the album.  Awful.

Even with that song in mind, it’s hard to rag on the album. Songs like “Epistemology” and “Jailbird” are just boring and bland, but they’re not excruciating.

Ward covers a gamut of genres with the new album. Perhaps the most beautiful number on the album is  “One Hundred Million Years,” which should be a bluegrass standard. Like most of his songs, the vocals and guitars keep it relatively simple. This one, however, has a lasting impact.

The album ends with a haunting outro-an instrumental version of Billie Holiday’s “I’m a Fool to Want You” done in the style of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly composer Ennio Morricone.

Hold Time is a world away from what Ward was doing on his 2005 album Transistor Radio.  That album was lo-fi, introspective, quieter and beautiful. Hold Time proves that Ward is playing around with different sounds. Not every song is beautiful, and it’s by no means a perfect album. But I’m still happy that he’s going in a different direction. If anything, this album is a sure sign that Ward is doing exactly what every artist should be doing: evolving.

At least in his evolution, he’s not making an equivalent to the KISS disco album.