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M. Ward - Transistor Radio

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Artist: M. Ward

Album: Transistor Radio

Label: Merge

Review date: May. 16, 2005

M. Ward is a young man with a startlingly well-developed sense of nostalgia. His enchantment with the past, only hinted at on earlier releases, blooms on Transistor Radio – from the sepia tones of the cover art to the title’s evocation of abandoned technology, even to the tinny sounds of obsolete transistor radios.

His obsession with antiquity aside, Ward is also getting better with age. While earlier records like Transfiguration of Vincent had standout moments (see: “Sad, Sad Song”), Ward’s penchant for cramming a slight excess of short songs onto each album left the best moments obscured among several less interesting ones. Ward hasn’t changed his songwriting style on Transistor Radio, which clocks in with 16 short songs, but he’s become more consistent and more effective at creating and sustaining a mood.

Like his early supporter Howe Gelb (who released some of his first solo records and who provides instrumental support on Transistor Radio), Ward’s got a knack for creating evocative scenes. His lo-fi production values, traditional forms, and writerly sense of detail create songs that seem to recall moments from some collective past life, one that’s just barely disappeared from view. His choice of covers – the instrumentals “You Still Believe in Me” and “Well Tempered Clavier” - indicate a thirst for whatever the Western musical canon has to offer, from pop to classical.

In between, Ward covers a lot of ground. On “One Life Away,” Ward pares down the song to the simplest elements, sketching the outline with a gently loping acoustic guitar and his own hoarse voice. The subsequent songs add some sophisticated instrumentation and some livlier tempos, but never stray too far from the melancholy of the opening numbers.

While the instruments may change, the songs all circle back around nostalgia in an attempt to recapture and emulate tradition, feeding the obsolescence of technology and social mores that haunts Transistor Radio. In “Fuel for Fire,” Ward sings “This song is always the same … the story’s always the same,” articulating the elemental concern of an artist esconcsed in the past: is there anything new to say? Despite Ward’s seeming pessimism, Transistor Radio is lovely evidence to the contrary.

By Emily Wanderer

Other Reviews of M. Ward

Transfiguration of Vincent


Hold Time

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View all articles by Emily Wanderer

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