M. Ward

Transistor Radio

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Listening to M. Ward's breezy ode to radio's forgotten heydays is a lot like taking in a huge breath of dust-bowl wind -- however, its charms are rooted in the hazy lemonade-sipping of summer rather than the great depression-obsession of the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? mainstream. Ward's voice is a slap-delayed pastiche of Ron Sexsmith's easygoing croon and Andrew Bird's closed-mouth drawl, and like his front-porch fingerpicking, it's as effortless as it is effective. Transistor Radio begins with a lovely instrumental version of the Pet Sounds classic "You Still Believe in Me," then drops the needle on "One Life Away," a lo-fi shout-out to the radio towers of old that centers around the sly and condemning lines "To all the people in the ground/Listening to the sound of the living people walking up and down the graves/Well one of them is mine/I'm visiting my fräulein/She's only one breath away." Many have used the "fake old 78" approach before, but in Ward's hands it sounds truly genuine, and his falsetto harmonizing is as spooky as the song is sweet. While the rest of Radio plays out like a sequel to 2003's excellent Transfiguration of Vincent, with standout cuts like "Sweethearts On Parade," "Hi-Fi," and "Paul's Song" echoing that record's marvelous title track ("Vincent O'Brien"), there's a subtle optimism at work here that was only hinted at on previous recordings, and by the time he wraps the whole thing up with a gorgeous rendition of J.S. Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier," it's become apparent which fork in the road this eccentric troubadour has chosen, and it's generously dotted with pregnant storm clouds.

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