Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: M. Ward - Hold Time (* * * 1/2)

Fresh off his acclaimed She & Him project with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward returns with another solo album, Hold Time, his sixth effort and first release since 2006’s Post-War. Everyone’s favorite low-key indie folkster serves up generous helpings of sunny pop melodies, bluesy ballads, and breezy rock tunes with a slew of guests including Lucinda Williams, Jason Lytle, and, of course, Miss Deschanel. Once again, Ward combines a wealth of retro influences into something that doesn’t so much sound new as it does revitalized or refreshed.

Hold Time takes the pattern Ward established on Post-War and makes everything a little bigger and brighter this time around. He’s still occasionally lonely and usually contemplative, but rock ‘n’ roll tunes like “Never Had Nobody Like You,” the Buddy Holly cover “Rave On,” and album highlight “To Save Me” are more loose and carefree than you might expect. Some cuts work better than others, but the variety is enjoyable. Elsewhere, Ward plays classic country-folk songs such as “On Hundred Million Years” and the gorgeous “Shangri-La,” and his familiar delicate, hazy signature sound on tracks like opener “For Beginners (AKA Mt. Zion).”

There are few weak tracks on Hold Time, but while the songwriting is routinely strong, some of the record just doesn’t make much of an impression. The second half of the album includes some highs, like the previously mentioned “Shangri-La” and the instrumental closer “Outro (AKA I’m a Fool to Want You),” but also has a few snoozers, like the drowsy “Oh, Lonesome Me,” the edgeless “Fisher of Men,” and the beautifully written but uninterestingly presented “Blake’s View.” It’s fair to say that Ward’s relaxed style has always relied less on attention-grabbing musical hooks than on subtle details and textures, but there’s a fine line between effortless and boring, and Ward comes dangerously close to crossing it a few too many times here.

Having said that, Hold Time is still a nice record, a pleasant and occasionally wonderful selection of songs carefully arranged and beautifully adorned with Ward’s ever-present attention to detail. In perusing reviews on the web, it seems that many have found plenty to be enjoyed on the record, and I would agree that several songs hold up well against his best material. His signature vocal style, exceptional guitar skills, and unique charm have always made him a cut above many of his singer/songwriter peers and Hold Time is yet another showcase of these talents, but too many of the tunes simply fade too completely into the background or fail to get under your skin like Ward’s work has consistently done before. Hold Time serves as a decent introduction to one of folk’s most influential artists in recent years, but it doesn’t feel like much of a step forward.

M. Ward presents another likeable collection of songs on Hold Time but offers fewer captivating moments than were contained in his previous work.


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