Friday, December 22, 2006

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2006: Number 10

A particularly tricky form of backgammon

There's no immediately evident reason why Portland's Matt Ward doesn't stand shoulder to shoulder with his peers in the realm of modern-yet-antiquarian songwriting that inherently creates and inhabits its own worlds that are a bit like ours but not quite there. Singing like a slightly younger Stateside version of John Martyn or Tom Waits before he became grizzled, Ward's fifth album, which with precious little build-up smacked us right between the eyes on discovery right at the end of the year, breaks away from the acoustically reconfigured landscape of his previous work and follows the lead, more than likely unintentionally but the parallels are to an extent there, of Sufjan Stevens of getting an eclectic full studio band together and hoping everyone enjoys the experience. That opener Poison Cup takes something from the latterday straightforward Bowie manual is a red herring - the sound, like the imagery, could only have come from the drawer marked Americana, where Greenwich Village acoustic guitar leans heavily on the edges of the blues tradition with traces of Neil Young, worldly considerations to go. Although Ward has called it an album about "healing" America's Iraq-riveted tensions, calling it an album about the war on terror goes some of the way to explaining the emotions put up at stake - witness the seething lament of Requiem - but certainly doesn't cover everything.

A more solid comparison is with the mid-80s dusty wing of the Paisley Underground most famously exemplified by Green On Red and since then with the Giant Sand/Howe Gelb (who cameos here) wing of alt-country, people who think prime Dylan was quite a good idea but don't fancy the easy stoner's troubadour road to joining the musical set texts, pulling people and ideas around to form something like a trad goodtime feeling without quite making it backwards to boogie bar-room hell. Jim James and Neko Case also appear and there's something of a reflection of their bands, elements evident of My Morning Jacket without the expansive silo reverb and Case insomuch as her intimate country leanings rather than New Pornographers power pop. The title track drags along under the weight of its own invested problems but sees hope at the end, Magic Trick gets the Beach Boys tricks out in less than two minutes and the whole thing is held together by Ward's parchment voice and some at times outstanding finger picking guitar. Meaningful without a hint of pretension, few if any nailed human frailty and hope as solidly this year.

LISTEN ON: Right In The Head
WATCH ON: Chinese Translation video; the same song (sorry, but there's not great amounts on there) on Letterman
READ ON: Prefixmag cover most bases, gradually

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