By Aaron Brown
With all the fanfarethat usually accompanies those obnoxious top ten albums of the lastyear lists, I was surprised to see that hardly anyone in Decembernoted the release of M. Ward’s most recent album, Post-War. Thus, Idecided that it was only fair and just that I write an appreciationto the most surprisingly underappreciated album of the previous year.Born Matt Ward, thePortland-based singer-songwriter has been quietly making a name forhimself with previous releases Transistor Radio (2005) andTransfiguration of Vincent (2003) on Merge Records. 2006’s Post-Waris the blossoming and realization of a new talent that is waiting tobe discovered by pretentious Macalester acoustic rockers (if theyhaven’t already done so).It’s difficult togive a description of Ward’s sound, one that truly encapsulates theingenuity and originality of his style. The beauty of Post-Wardirectly stems from what I can only call its complicated simplicity;despite the combinations of folk, country, bluegrass andWilco-meets-Brian Wilson pop that shape the ups and downs of thealbum, the overwhelmingly straightforward allure of theguy-with-an-acoustic-guitar persona makes this album arguably one ofthe least appreciated of the last year. I close my eyes, and suddenlyI’m sitting in an old, musty house with sunshine pouring throughthe windows on a lazy, introspective Tuesday afternoon. And his voice! OhLord, his voice. Ward’s sandpapery vocals range widely frompowerfully rumbling and roaring on tracks such as “Requiem” and“Poison Cup” to strangely soothing and intoxicating on songs“Eyes on the Prize” and “Chinese Translation.” As he’squoted in his Merge Records biography, “I started recording inmy parents’ house when I was 16 and, not wanting to wake anybody up,you just start to sing quieter and play quieter. I think that’s whymy voice is so messed up. People who only know the records think I’mreally old or from the South.” To accompany his raspy,does-he-smoke-cigarettes voice (he doesn’t) are M. Ward’snotoriously vague lyrics. Depending on who you ask, the war thatadorns the title of the album is internal, romantic, or even acommentary on current geopolitics. Ward generally refuses to commenton the nature and meanings of his songs, usually noting that fans’interpretations are more interesting. The title track, however, ismore explicit; M. Ward dreamily swoons “Say the money just ain’twhat it used to be/Man how we used to tear apart this town/Put adollar into the machine and you’ll remember how.” The imagery ofhis tough luck lyrics combined with his rugged voice draw thelistener into a realm of old sepia photographs of times past. Diehardmusic aficionados will recognize My Morning Jacket’s Jim James onbackup vocals on “Chinese Translation” and Neko Case backing himup on his cover of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home.”If you are looking fora glimpse into the brilliance and charm of M. Ward’s sleepy ways,I’d point you in the direction of The Current’s radio interviewfrom last September(http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2006/09/05/m_ward/).The interview threatened to overdo Ward’s laid-back, West Coastslacker-fresh-out-of-bed vibe; he has difficulty keeping pace in theinterview with the deejay and speaks with a hesitated hush. But thenagain, considering how his music is so effective at touching somesort of subconscious nerve, that’s what’s to love.