Fitter, Happier, More Productive: M. Ward's Hold Time

(Tuesdays can be a trying day here in Club Land at the RFT. It's deadline day for the show/concert listings, and this fact hangs over my head just like all of those foreboding elementary school (and high school and college) homework assignments that I would inevitably put off to the last minute. But Tuesdays always go off without a hitch, and it's all because the right music always seems to present itself. Each week I'll talk about what induces the trance-like state I need to become one with the listings.)

M. Ward is a self-professed George Harrison disciple. This is not immediately obvious in terms of songwriting style, but becomes clearer when one focuses on the hauntingly spiritual nature of Ward's output. His incorporation of timeless production techniques and stripped-down arrangements creates a perfect template for this type of exploration -- and Ward's new album Hold Time is no exception.

These fourteen tunes incorporate many of the same sonic touchstones found on much of his earlier output -- i.e. lightly galloping guitar strums, slightly gritty doubled lead vocals, and tastefully placed flourishes of minimalist percussion. The album's first track, "For Beginners," establishes this feel, with its rounded, nylon string acoustic strum as a backdrop for the irresistible breathiness of Ward's hypnotic vocal style.

The next song, "Never Had Nobody Like You," commences with a medium tempo shuffle reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac; that, along with vintage-sounding fuzz-laden guitars, pushes the song forward with a bounce that is very "Sounds of the 70's." Still, the slapback vocal effects and Harrison-esque lead guitar lines keep the song grounded and add a late-era Beatles flair as well.

But the beautifully lush string arrangements (again by Ward himself) are what really set this album apart from its predecessors. These first make an appearance as a subtle textural backdrop on "Jailbird," and take center stage on the title track, which calls to mind the romantic drone of many of the orchestral moments on The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

The album's other orchestral highlight comes later on an eerie and emotionally stirring duet, a cover of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" with Lucinda Williams . The strings here are darker and thick as molasses calling to mind David Campell's work on Beck's Sea Change.

Ward is truly one of the most talented, timeless and consistently tasteful songwriters of his generation who definitely deserves the overused designation of "legacy artist." Hold Time is just another addition to what's already a prolific career.