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M. Ward 

Transistor Radio (Merge)

Few songwriters compose elegies quite like Matt Ward. His last record, 2003's The Transfiguration of Vincent, operated as a song cycle dedicated to an absent friend, striking a balance between mawkish and maudlin. Transistor Radio is a eulogy of a different sort, an ode to the bygone days of radio before the commercialization of the medium -- kind of like Tom Petty's The Last DJ, except people may actually listen to this one. The sticker on the cover proclaims that this album memorializes "a utopian radio power," though you won't get any anti-Clear Channel screeds or sloganeering here; rather, Ward has tapped into the mystic chords of memory and come up with a decade-spanning playlist.

Bookending this record with versions of the Beach Boys' "You Still Believe in Me" and Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier" casts a wide stylistic net, though it all fits in with this vision of open-format radio. These songs alternate between loping beauties ("Lullaby + Exile") and fun, rollicking foot-stompers (the Jenny Lewis-enhanced "Big Boat"). As with Ward's other records, Transistor Radio often sounds like a Depression-era 78, melding the guitar's strolling, open strum and the singer's hypnotic, raspy tenor. If the narrative loses focus throughout the album, that's how Ward intended it; these are lost transmissions from a mystery radio tower, searching for a home.

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October 28, 2020

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