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M. WARD (Buy CDs by this artist)
Duet for Guitars #2 (Ow Om) 2000
End of Amnesia (Future Farmer) 2001
Live Music & the Voices of Strangers (no label) 2002
Transfiguration of Vincent (Merge) 2003
Transistor Radio (Merge) 2005

Portland, Oregon's M. Ward (Matt to his friends) combines the guitar chops of John Fahey with tuneful front-porch hymns that are equal parts rambling country blues and folk ballad and delivers them in a laid-back drawl that recalls Greg Brown or Tom Waits.

Having done college time in San Luis Obispo, California with indie outfit Rodriguez, Ward struck out on his own with Duets for Guitars #2 (released on Howe Gelb's Ow Om label). The songs range from solo acoustic instrumentals to shambling semi-rockers, but he shines most with laconic ditties like "Beautiful Car" (a baby blue '52 Roadstar, to be sure), "It Won't Happen Twice" and "Song From Debby's Stairs." A collection of lazy, winsome odes to small joys and quiet moments.

Gelb and Deanna Varagona of Lambchop guest on End of Amnesia, which benefits not only from a very strong batch of songs, but also from subtle yet imaginative production by Adam Selzer (Decemberists) that highlights Ward's drowsy croon. Snatches of Jimmie Rodgers and Big Bill Broonzy fade in and out amidst mysterious percussion, creaky guitars and tinkly piano, but songs as good as "Carolina" ("Used to feel like California with baby eyes so blue / Now I feel like Carolina, I split myself in two") and "Bad Dreams" don't need much embellishment. The persistence of memory is a strong theme throughout, especially in "O'Brien," an affecting portrait of a friend. ("He said, 'I got a brand new song to show ya, though it probably ain't gonna blow your mind / And the thing about O'Brien was he could always make the strings buzz/ like it was still 1989") The self-released Live Music and the Voices of Strangers draws from shows in Europe (mostly) and features covers of songs by Yo La Tengo, Lou Reed and Louis Armstrong.

Transfiguration of Vincent is cut from roughly the same cloth as its studio predecessor, with more jaunty acoustic numbers, sleepy ballads and crisp instrumental guitar workouts. But the overall sound is brighter and less opaque. "Vincent O'Brien" ("He only laughs when he's sad / And he's sad all the time so he laughs the whole night through / Yeah, he laughs in the daytime too") is an uptempo barnburner with charmingly sloppy piano, and offers another look at the man and the muse. A cover of Bowie's "Let's Dance" is revelatory, featuring languid harmonica and a hushed intimacy unimaginable in the original. Ward's own songwriting gifts are fully grown and on display throughout the record, from the playful "Fool Says" ("They told you all romantic fools had died / I'm here to tell you that they lied") to the Bo Diddley-meets-Escape From New York "Helicopter." Around this time, extensive touring with Rilo Kiley, Cat Power, My Morning Jacket and Vic Chesnutt brought Ward exposure to an ever-increasing range of audiences.

Billed as "childhood memories of a utopian radio power," Transistor Radio breaks little new stylistic ground despite the (very loose) conceptual foundation. Ward does continue to grow as a song interpreter, with solo guitar versions of Brian Wilson's "You Still Believe in Me" and Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" book-ending the record. But he pushes the envelope by dueting with the voice of the long-gone A.P. Carter on "Oh Take Me Back." Some new elements are introduced to Ward's by-now-familiar bag of tricks: "Paul's Song" is an homage to the Portland rain, sweetened with a little pedal steel, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket lends his unmistakable vocals to "Fuel for Fire." But "I'll Be Your Bird," which is included here, was first on Duet for Guitars #2. The songs are not, on the whole, as impressive as on the previous two records, but repeated listens reveal new textures and lyrical subtleties that make it a worthy addition to an already impressive body of work.

[Marc Horton]