BY JONATHAN VALANIA First, a word about his sponsor: While I can’t ever foresee the need to hear a new Superchunk album in this lifetime, the label those folks have set up, Merge, so consistently releases product of uncommon purity and indispensability that it should make the likes of Matador, Touch and Go, Sub Pop and Drag City glow with the red-blush shame of the recently spanked. I tip my hat to them.
Folk music gets a bad rap, having long ago been relegated to the leafy retreats of crunchy granola ninnies in white socks and Birkenstocks, where its rough-hewn hymnals were gutted by time and the ?60s, and reduced to politically correct acoustica, liberal bromides and impotent protest. What?s missing from most people?s assumptions about folk music is the blood, sweat and come, not to mention the staggering body counts, laments for lost limbs, dead wives, drowned babies and hard rains. And that’s just the happy songs.
M. Ward is the nom de soft rock of one Matt Ward, a shadowy horse whisperer from Portland, Ore., who has released four albums of Jiminy Cricket porch folk and enigmatic lo-fi attic blues, each invested with a moonlit vibe that suggests there’s a kind of hush all over the world tonight. Ward is deeply self-schooled in all things past, and smart enough to know those who ignore history are doomed to remix it. A sad-eyed troubadour in the hang-dawg tradition of Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, Ward teases high emotion out of low-key compositions, coloring his records with the sepia-toned crackle and hiss of old rural blues recordings, drifty dustbowl sadness and the submarine murk of vintage echo. It’s the pretty, twittering music you usually have to suffer a concussion to hear — you hold your head and just watch the concentric halos of birdies and little stars orbiting your noggin. This is the sound of 21st-century porch music, like a Woody Guthrie song about flying saucers or watching Birth Of A Nation on your iPod.