Album Review

A Wasteland Companion

A Wasteland Companion

by M. Ward


Merge
7 / 10
14th June 2012

Reviewed by Max Walker


Matthew Stephen Ward, known to most simply as M. Ward has been making records now for the best part of thirteen years. A staple of the Portland music scene, Ward’s particular brand of Americana has steadily become more popular. His success in part has mimicked that of like-minded songwriters, and collaborators such as Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket).

A Wasteland Companion is Ward’s seventh solo effort and sees the California native in familiar form, with various tracks leaping from hushed ballads to rollicking rock n’ roll. Opener ‘Clean Slate’ definitely falls into the former category, made up simply of gentle layers of acoustic guitars and a rough slide part with Ward’s timeless, bruised voice yearning for a new beginning. As the album continues it becomes apparent that Ward largely alternates between these two different styles. The upbeat, slightly tacky duets ‘I Get Ideas’ and ‘Sweetheart’ feature female vocalists’ Rachel Cox and actress Zooey Deschanel respectively. The fact these two songs run back to back only serves to illustrate that they should perhaps have been saved for the next She & Him record (Ward and Deschanel’s at times sickly sweet side project). This is frustrating, particularly because the exact same thing happened on Ward’s last record Hold Time. In both instances they do seem to compromise the ‘solo’ nature of each album, standing next to the bulk of the songs, the tracks seem do seem out of place.

That aside, the rest of the record sees Ward in vintage form. ‘Me and My Shadow’ is a dark and brooding mid-tempo rocker that features Ward ranting through a megaphone-like mic and an excellent distorted guitar solo. Throughout all of Ward’s work and live shows it is evident that the man is an extremely talented guitarist and A Wasteland Companion is no different. Excellent steel string flourishes and slick lead guitar parts frequent the record. The title track is a beautiful instrumental lead by Ward’s characteristic finger picking style playing backed up by ambient synth washes. ‘Watch the Show’ is perhaps the highlight, a chugging, brooding tale of a long suffering late night TV producer who hijacks an evenings broadcast lamenting his wasted career: “I thought I’d be the guy unmasking the clown, not the one who is polishing his nose”. The final five songs are all classic Ward ballads, although tracks like ‘Crawl After You’, which features a violin break and ‘Wild Goose’ with its cymbal swells and orchestral flourishes, give cinematic elements to each song, which is a welcome addition to Ward’s palette of sounds.

Annoyingly the record does include the best and worst of Ward’s discography. Usually a consistent songwriter, on A Wasteland Companion Ward has let his side-projects’ weaknesses seep into the album but overall it is well-crafted and thoughtful outing.






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