M. Ward

Hold Time

Rating: 3.0

Label: Merge

M. Ward could probably sing the contents of an old Vladivostok telephone directory and make it sound good. On his previous Merge albums such as The Transfiguration of Vincent, Transistor Radio and Post-War, Ward explored a variety of musical styles and themes and carved out a niche as one of indie’s more experimental and reliable artists. His songs are somehow both immediately accessible and hard to place; disparate elements, arrangements and production techniques are often melded together to create something that sounds both rooted in music tradition and singularly unique. With a sometimes-gravelly voice that frequently never gets much above a too-cool whisper – the label’s characterization of Ward’s voice as being “like drizzled honey” is a cute phrase but doesn’t say much – Ward will likely remain just out of reach of mainstream recognition. Yet for those in the know, his songs are highly original and won’t be mistaken for that of any other artist.

Hold Time adheres to the same general pattern mapped out on those previous releases from Merge, with a handful of new tunes sprinkled in with a few cover songs and at least one instrumental. As on those previous albums, the production is also quite similar: Ward’s vocals are hazy and mostly subdued, the songs feature pleasant guitar and piano work amid a whole army of studio flourishes, and the lyrics read like a catalog of 20th century musical motifs. Yet despite these similarities, or perhaps because of them, the album is Ward’s least interesting and engaging in quite some time. Though it’s not exactly a case of déjà vu (and a new album from the musician is always welcome) there’s not a whole lot here that really distinguishes Hold Time from Ward’s three previous efforts.

This isn’t to say the album is bad or a throwaway; certainly, a number of solid tracks are included. Ward’s guitar picking talents are frequently on display, especially on songs like opener “For Beginners,” “Jailbird” and “Stars of Leo.” “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “To Save Me” roll along with a stomping rhythm and rolling piano that offer a nice change of pace from the album’s mostly reserved and restrained tone. Ward also dramatically reworks a couple cover songs. “Rave On” is re-imagined as a jangly guitar version that slows down the harmonies of the original, while “Oh Lonesome Me” features Lucinda Williams and a stark guitar melody played somewhere between a country blues and a dirge. Though Williams’ vocals are occasionally overwrought – with a tortured and exaggerated delivery, she sometimes she sounds like a caricature of herself – the song is perhaps the album’s standout moment.

Still, there’s a sameness and familiarity to Hold Time that bogs it down; everything from the production techniques (including Ward’s vocal treatment) to the musical arrangements are just too reminiscent of Ward’s previous albums. Though this release offers a good collection of songs, it lacks the narrative arch of Vincent and the thematic cohesion of Transistor Radio. Although it’s not strictly a case of the musician spinning his wheels or stalling for time, the album doesn’t find Ward straying far from his comfort zone. It’s a reliable, steady album, and in this case that’s mostly a drawback.

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