Portland, Oregon based Matt Ward has been wowing and wooing fans and musicians alike with his finely-picked guitar and gravel-throated voice ever since his debut album Duet for Guitars #2 in 1999. Recognised for his talents, Ward has become the weapon of choice for the independent songstress, guesting on recordings by Cat Power, Beth Orton, Jenny Lewis, and actress Zooey Deschanel. As an artist in his own right Ward has moved from folk singer to frontman, with 2006’s Post War being notable for both its full-band setting and its elevation of Ward into the public view.
Last year brought the Deschanel/Ward collaboration known as She & Him, with Deschanel’s self-written tunes and sugar-coated hooks proving to be the perfect foil for Ward and the result of this work, Volume 1, being one of the more sweetly affecting albums of 2008. The after-effects of this pairing are readily apparent on Hold Time, with Ward going back to his singer/songwriter roots but retaining the services of Deschanel on two songs, one a stripped back cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and again on the fuzz-folk-frug of “Never Had Anybody Like You” with its Iggy Pop “Nightclubbing” beat and guitar playing that’s straight out of Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years”. As a prelude to the forthcoming She & Him sequel, this track just adds to the anticipation and is as much a tease as a treat.
Hold Time gives you the impression that Ward is comfortable in his current station, his breezy walk through opener “For Beginners” is rife with handclaps and chords from multiple acoustic guitars that bounce from string to string in contentment. The title track is a sumptuous soft-spoken plea that has the depth and vintage feel of a Cole Porter tune, with a string-arrangement that winds through Ward’s words in a smoky haze. The cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” is an inspired choice but one that seems almost a wasted effort when considering the perfection of the original, but Ward manages to imbue a suggestive touch that was missing from Holly’s clean-cut delivery (I still find the lyric “I’m glad you’re revealing your love for me” one of the dirtiest in rock and roll). When sat side by side with the Deschanel/Ward duet on “Never Had Nobody Like You” one could almost be seen as a rewrite of the other.
Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, ex of Grandaddy rather, adds his touch to the unbridled Rolling Stones by way of the Monkees celebration of “To Save Me”. “One Hundred Million Years” and “Shangri-La” bring things back to familar M.Ward territory, just the man and the guitar, unassisted, his deft playing and searching voice. It becomes apparent by now that the real joy of Hold Time comes from its inability to sit still. Moods change from track to track. Soft acoustic strums point the direction one way but swell unexpectedly with drums and strings as they do on “Stars of Leo” and Ward’s seat shifting contrariness is reflected in the lyrics “I get so low I need a pick me up, I get so high I need a pick me down”. This is the essence of Hold Time, it bursts with pick me ups and bring me downs. It oozes love and loneliness, and Ward’s choice of companion in Lucinda Williams on “Oh, Lonesome Me” a cover of a song by Don Gibson, itself a calling card of Neil Young’s for many years, is just sublime, both of them sound so worn out and weary.
It’s surprising to think how un-surprising this all is. Ward’s talent and ability to craft perfect songs has never been in doubt, yet Hold Time manages to take these assumptions and shatter them. This is a display of someone at the peak of their career literally taking delight in showing how simple this must be. From finger-picked folk songs to ’70s radio rock to jazz club mood swings to gritty confessions of love, Hold Time is all this and just much, much more.