M. Ward: Live Last Night

m ward

Live Last Night

By Chris Klimek

There's an Old Navy's worth of sartorial similes in which one could dress the songs of Portland, Ore., retro-elegist M. Ward. But the one that fits best is to liken them to jeans or T-shirts "distressed" to look and feel older and more lived-in than they really are.

Ward's ethereal, meant-to-sound-"found" alt-country-rock is soothing and undemanding; just soft-focus enough to hold his spot on the hipper-than-thou Merge Records label. It's well-crafted. It's listenable as the day is long. It just isn't terribly exciting, particularly on a Friday night at an all-standing venue like the 9:30 club.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

At the second of two nights at the 9:30, Ward used three tactics to rescue the gig from the over-easiness of much of his songbook:

1) Spike your set with propulsive four-on-the-floor burners like "Helicopter," which sounds like it's from the '50s, or "Roll Over Beethoven," which actually is.

2) Confine yourself to a breezy 75 minutes.

3) Be a wilder, raunchier guitar player than your albums have even hinted at.

Ward's electric guitar is as blotchy and saw-toothed as his voice is diffident and cool. It brought numbers like the opening "Chinese Requiem" or the chugging evangelism of "Fisher of Men" into a meaner, more bracing realm, like the obnoxious guest at a stodgy party whose presence helps everyone else relax. (Ward played guitar on only about half the set, spending the balance on piano.)

"Do I recognize some of you from last night? I thought I did," Ward asked, adding that he'd changed the set list in deference to the repeat customers.

His four-piece band offered sweet vocal harmonies on a slow-motion cover of "Rave On," though it was small consolation for the absence of Zooey Deschannel -- the She to Ward's Him -- who coos along on the version that appears on this year's "Hold Time" album. Ward also covered Louis Armstrong, Daniel Johnston, and Maryland's own John Fahey, proving at least that his taste is impeccable.

By David Malitz |  August 3, 2009; 2:18 AM ET Live Last Night
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

First off--"Chinese Requiem" is wrong, you should check out your facts there. I wonder which of two songs on "Post-War" you're talking about.
And when you say something like, His music simply isn't that exciting, I wonder if you've thoroughly dug into any of his stuff from earlier than, say, 2006? His last record especially is a sham--truly glazed over and stifled by its own devices, as you hint at. "Post-War" was way better but still not as good as his real gems. I think if you spent a week with "Transfiguration of Vincent" and "End of Amnesia" you might feel differently....

Posted by: GiovanniRuss | August 3, 2009 4:24 PM

I went on Thursday as well as the show earlier this year at Sixth & I. For the most part I agree with this review (Roll Over Beethoven was the one time the show took off). So even though this band has limitations, they obviosuly know how to rock which begs the question, why not more? It speaks to a larger problem with this generation of musicians who equate rockin out with somehow being less genuine and/or serious. You can do both, i.e. Neil Young. Wilco use to as well, but their is now too much irony when they rock (mock rock star poses, a wink and a nod). Can we all agree that the cooler than thou hipster is as much a put on as the shirtless rock star? Two sides of the same coin.

Posted by: joshuasto | August 4, 2009 11:09 AM

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