TERRY GROSS, host:
M. Ward is a singer-songwriter based in Portland, Oregon who has just released his seventh album, called "Hold Time." Last year, Ward collaborated on an album with the actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, taking the name "She and Him." He's toured with the White Stripes and My Morning Jacket, but doesn't seem tempted to join a band. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Ward's talent as a singular solo voice is its own reward.
(Soundbite of song "For Beginners")
Mr. M. WARD: (Singing) When you're absolute beginners It's a panoramic view From her majesty Mount Zion, And the kingdom is for you Uh huh Uh huh...
Mr. KEN TUCKER (Editor At Large, Entertainment Weekly): M. Ward begins his new album with a song called "For Beginners" that uses the phrase "absolute beginners" as its chorus. Singing in his perpetually adolescent-sounding drawl, the 30-something Ward doesn't seem to be tipping his musical cap to either Colin MacInnes' 1959 novel about adolescents or to David Bowie's 1980s song of the same name. But you never know. For Ward, all options are always open. And as in the work of MacInnes and Bowie, an absolute beginner is someone open to love, destined to have his heart broken.
(Soundbite of song "To Save Me")
Mr. WARD: (Singing) And he shifts in his sleep and the earth begins to quakeYeah, he shifts in his sleep and the earth begins to quakeSo how much difference could it possibly make? How much effort could it possibly takeTo save me, to save me, to save me, Just to save meSave me from sailing over the edge...
Mr. TUCKER: Throughout most of his career, Ward has made music that falls pretty squarely in the folk rock genre and the subdivision of mopey sincerity. But on this album, he has some welcome fun with other genres, performers and writers. The song I just played, "To Save Me," sounds like a salute to Phil Spector and Beach Boys' records, full of multiple track M. Ward harmonies and driving piano and drums. He also offers this fine version of Buddy Holly's "Rave On," in which the raving has been burned off. What's left is a loping-down-the road genial quality that radiates a rare happiness.
(Soundbite of song "Rave On")
Mr. WARD: (Singing) When the little things you say and do Make me want to be with you Rave on This crazy feeling I know it's got me reeling When you say I love you I say, rave onI say, rave on I say, rave on My, my, my rave onI say, rave on...
Mr. TUCKER: This album probably features more cover versions of songs than any other M. Ward album. One of them is so unusual, I'm going to play you the original first for comparison. In 1958, Don Gibson hit the top of the country charts with this song, "Oh Lonesome Me."
(Soundbite of song "Oh Lonesome Me")
Mr. DON GIBSON: (Singing) Everybody's going out and having fun I'm just a fool for staying home and having none I can't get over how sheset me free Oh, lonesome me.
Mr. TUCKER: Now listen to what M. Ward has done to that song. He slowed down the melody, stripping it of the chipperness that Don Gibson used to contradict his lonesomeness. Ward has enlisted Lucinda Williams, that mistress of draggy despair, to turn "Oh Lonesome Me" into a real hymn to isolation.
(Soundbite of song "Oh Lonesome Me")
Ms. LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Everybody's going out and having fun I'm a fool for staying home, having none I can't get over how I got set free Oh, lonesome me.
Mr. TUCKER: Although "Hold Time" has its share of downer moments, on "Blake's Door" he quotes the British poet that death is a door, adding, you'll be waiting on the other side. But for the most part, M. - the initial stands for Mack - makes this collection a musical road trip, crossing the country for different styles, lighting out for territory where he can meet new people to sing with, to romance, to break up with, and dive into any nearby recording studio to set down his latest meditations on the footloose Romeo's life. And it sounds like a good, enviable life - a "Shangri-La," in fact.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Hold Time" by M. Ward. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.