Release Date: Apr 10, 2012
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
If Matt Ward tends to be overlooked among indie rock's greatest talents, it's because dude hangs back – behind Zooey Deschanel in She and Him, behind Conor Oberst and Jim James in Monsters of Folk, behind the scenes as collaborator with Jenny Lewis, Neko Case and others. But his own LPs show why everyone wants to be his friend. His seventh is his most vivid and varied yet, full of exquisite guitar work ("Clean Slate"), gem-like songcraft ("Primitive Girl") and inspired covers ("I Get Ideas," famously sung by Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy).
After playing modest collaborator as a part of She & Him and Monsters of Folk, M. Ward takes the reins of creativity back with A Wasteland Companion. Ward’s first solo effort since 2009’s Hold Time, the record feels its finest when the finger-picking guitarist keeps things simple and mellow on the acoustic, filling the remaining space with his warm, husked vocals.
The riddle asks: if you replace the head of your broom, then replace the handle, have you still got the broom you started with? So it is with M Ward and his relationship to American music in that period between Elvis leaving the army and the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ward's music takes the shape of the declining years of rock'n'roll and of Brill Building pop, then removes its constituent parts and replaces them with newer versions: it's not a retooling, so much as a careful restoration job designed to make it sound like something meant to last for ever. Is it still just early-60s pop, or is it something timeless and new? Ward's seventh album finds him mixing up the country-blues picking of the title track with a rockabilly-noir portrayal of the musician's life on Me and My Shadow.
It’s a rare occasion where a man’s solo career is outshone by his side-projects but that’s what happens when you hook up with the likes of Zooey Deschanel and Conor Oberst. As the ‘Him’ in She & Him and one of the four Monsters Of Folk, M. Ward has contributed to some fine records in recent years and reaped a lesser share of the credit than he surely deserved.
A new M. Ward album has become something of a warm blanket for music lovers. They’ve become as reliable as the promise of the morning sun, and on A Wasteland Companion, Ward rises to the occasion. In recent years, his niche audience has grown cautious as he’s churned out records seemingly tailored to the hip soccer mom set under the She & Him moniker.
The timeless quality always inherent in M. Ward's music abounds here on the songwriter's seventh solo album, and rather than a wasteland, this feels more like slices of a dreamscape. Reflective, calculated, and ultimately seductive, A Wasteland Companion drives one's senses through a quiet maelstrom of compressed energy. With sunny songs abutting thoughtful ruminations, it's not a fluid collection.
If you’re reading this review and you’re not familiar with M. Ward—the odds of that being the case are low, I imagine, but still—chances are you’ve come across him in one form or another and not known it. Despite a lengthy solo career, M. (short for Matthew) Ward has become something of an indie-circle household name in the last four years, thanks to his involvement in two high-profile collaborative projects: She & Him and Monsters of Folk.
The yardstick for folk and its myriad sub-genres always returns to the level of intrigue that the troubadour sculpting it wields. What, then of Matthew Ward, whose collaborations with Zooey Deschanel, performance at a Barack Obama rally and slightly indulgent side-project with Bright Eyes over the past few years have threatened to overshadow the subtle chameleonic talents that first brought the 38 year old to acclaim?‘A Wasteland Companion’ was written from studio to studio, documenting Ward’s travels since previous LP ‘Hold Time’ breached the US Top 50 in 2009. Ward approaches this LP much as he did his last, shifting between styles from the ’50s do-wop of ‘I Get Ideas’ to more withdrawn acoustic-based tracks, such as ‘There’s A Key’ and ‘Pure Joy’ – in recognition of his own recent nomadic history.
Review Summary: Back around the campfire with M. Ward.For those only familiar with Matthew Ward’s work as the Him in Zooey Deschanel’s pastiche to ‘60s pop and aw-shucks charm in She & Him, A Wasteland Companion opener “Clean Slate (For Alex & El Goodo)” is probably a bit of a curveball. Yet after years of working behind the curtain in both She & Him and with more outspoken rock revivalists Conor Oberst, Jim James and Mike Mogis in the Monsters of Folk, this is the M.
Matthew Stephen Ward's seventh studio album was recorded in eight different studios and boasts 18 guest musicians, including Rachel Cox (Oakley Hall), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes), Tom Hagerman (Devotchka), Tobey Leaman (Dr. Dog), and She & Him's X chromosome Zooey Deschanel, just to name a few. Such a heroic production itinerary should surely yield appropriately epic results, but Ward's Wasteland Companion feels as organic and understated as anything he's done thus far.
M. WardA Wasteland Companion[Merge; 2012]By Justin Pansacola; April 10, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGIf this album gives us any insight into M. Ward's well-being, he's doing fine. It’s clear from start to finish that things are going well, and on the occasions where it isn’t, he’s learned to be alright with that.
It makes sense that there is an M. Ward record called A Wasteland Companion. The man's songs-- so deeply focused on God and faith and love and time and unspooling so steadily and reliably for more than a decade now-- can be especially useful when life feels bleak, lonely, or reduced to an irradiated landscape of smoldering ash-piles. What does not seem quite right is that this particular album is the one that has been given that particular name.
He might be best known for his work with Zooey Deschanel (as She & Him) and as a member of supergroup Monsters of Folk, but it would be a mistake to overlook the understated solo output of Oregon-based Matthew Ward. His seventh album is another fine collection of hushed Americana (opener "Clean Slate"; the bucolic "The First Time I Ran Away") interspersed with more strident fare ("Primitive Girl" has echoes of "Laid" by James, while the fuzzed-up "Me and My Shadow" recalls Eels). Too much filler towards the end of the album detracts slightly, but this is another solid set.
If only we lived in the glory days of vinyl records; for if we did, I might have placed M. Ward’s latest offering, A Wasteland Companion, on its B-side and started from there. In the seven tracks that would have comprised this nearly flawless record, Ward produces the kind of simple folk songs that thrive on his lush, impeccably landscaped arrangements.
M. Ward has been making it big. Between those overly cute She & Him albums (which, don’t get me wrong, have their own candlelit glow at times) and being one-fourth of that absurdly-named-but-brings-the-goods Monsters of Folk outfit, Ward’s stock has never been higher. It blew up like a tech startup back in 2003 with Transfiguration of Vincent – still his best – and hasn’t dipped since.
Matthew Stephen Ward’s Cottage Industry of Traveling Song is doing pretty damn brisk business these days. His prolific personal brand, which has averaged an album a year since the mid-2000s, between his M. Ward, She & Him and Monsters of Folk projects, is arguably at its peak right now, if only in terms of public profile and general recognition.
One critique of some of today's artists is, in their obsession to discover something new and progressive, they unwittingly repeat a sound well-explored in another decade. Often you'll hear someone say, “I liked them better when they were called [insert artist whose career has been glorified ex post-facto].” What has made M. Ward's early albums such a success is their perspective on the past as a means to confront the present and future.
By now, it’s well-known just how much music requires a steady balance to fully take hold of. For his well-being ways, M. Ward has always been a charming musician because of his magnetic voice, as well as his stellar songwriting skills. As a crooning, soulful voice that sounds just as all-encompassing as it sweeps you away, Ward’s been involved in a slew of side projects while recognizing an honest discography of great music.
Although recorded in six cities – including Austin – and at eight studios, with guests from Sonic Youth and Dr. Dog to Bright Eyes, A Wasteland Companion coheres. While not as sunny as 2009's Hold Time, it's confident and multifaceted, the first half hook-filled pop ("Primitive Girl") highlighted by a cover of Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart," which overflows with hand claps, doo-wop, and Zooey Deschanel.
It started with ‘Transistor Radio’. No, scratch that. It started with reading a live review; a review written through hopeless tears and broken heart. It told how the early albums had been the backing track to a relationship break-up, make-up and break-up again. It offered M.Ward as a guy to ….
Timeless, romantic folk from a singer whose not-so-monstrous reputation precedes him. Natalie Hardwick 2012 Endless grafter and Americana chieftain Matthew Ward specialises in the kind of knowing multi-collaborative musicianship that prodigious US alt-sters pull off with such swagger. He’s worked with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst on the misleadingly named Monsters of Folk, one of the least-beastly supergroups to ever exist.