Ward Reborn 

With an assist from a Tucson musician, M. Ward is hitting the big-time.

The first sound you hear on M. Ward's latest album, Transfiguration of Vincent, is the sound of crickets chirping. A guitar starts gracefully strumming, then a band enters and plays an instrumental interlude that is mournful, but with the glow of promise for a better future.

The song is called "Transfiguration #1," and it serves as a bookend of sorts, along with its companion, a somber piano ballad titled "Transfiguration #2," which closes the album. It also sets the tone of the album immediately. Looking through the murk of misery and finding the single hopeful gleam--the idea of rebirth as an answer to the sorrow of loss--is a theme that runs through the album.

Matt Ward grew up in Ventura County, Calif., about an hour north of Los Angeles proper. Fresh out of high school, he took up with some friends to form Rodriguez, which Ward describes as heavily influenced by fIREHOSE and Sonic Youth. When Rodriguez broke up. Ward moved to Chicago, where he says he "got a lot more into four-tracking because I didn't have any other players." After a year in the Second City, he moved to Portland, where he still lives.

He took the songs he wrote in Chicago and recorded them in a 16-track studio, with the plan to release a CD of the material himself--just to give to a few friends. One of those friends was Jason Lytle, of Grandaddy, whom Ward knew from playing bills together back in his Rodriguez days. Lytle passed the disc on to one of his friends, Tucson's Howe Gelb, of Giant Sand, and a few weeks later, Gelb contacted Ward about releasing the album on Gelb's then-recently formed Ow Om imprint.

Duet for Guitars #2 came out on Ow Om in the fall of 2000 and garnered immediate, gushing critical attention, forcing Ward to re-think his career choice of teaching kids to read.

"The response and help that I got--especially from Howe--on this first record made me look at music a bit differently, and take it a bit more seriously than I would have," he says.

Gelb's involvement also helped secure European distribution for the record, and he eventually invited Ward to open for Giant Sand on his first tours of both Europe and the United States. "He's just been incredibly helpful," Ward says, of Gelb. "He's the best." (When interviewed for the Tucson Weekly a few years ago, Gelb described Ward as possessing "that elusive and undeniable IT.")

End of Amnesia followed, on Future Farmer, in 2001. Due to better distribution, it further raised Ward's profile while collecting similar critical accolades as the debut.

Transfiguration of Vincent, released earlier this year on Merge, coalesced during a period of tumultuous loss for Ward. The album's namesake, Vincent O'Brien, is, one can conclude, someone who was important to Ward, and someone whom he lost prior to recording the album. (When asked who Vincent was, he responds, "I had a song on End of Amnesia called 'O'Brien,' and a lot of people asked me about him, and I thought the best way to answer the question would be to keep it inside of the music." In the liner notes, Ward writes, "This album was designed to keep the loss alive and behind me.")

But he's also quick to point out that the album was not inspired just by the loss of one person, citing the death of guitar virtuoso John Fahey, an enormous inspiration of Ward's, as equally important.

"All of these events happened in northeastern Oregon, where I live," he explains. Following Fahey's death, Ward attended a public memorial service in remembrance of the guitarist, and he was blown away by the music performed there.

"In my opinion," Ward explains, "Fahey's music was all about history, and about musicians that have passed on, and him transfiguring them in some way. So going to his memorial service was very heavy, when you take into accordance what he achieved in music. His innovations on guitar, for me, are as important as Django Reinhardt's and Chet Atkins', and I think he'll be looked at in that light in years to come, but right now, his status is much more underground. These songs at the memorial service made me think about what music can achieve if you point it in the right direction. And it made me ask myself, if I only had three to five minutes to put my friend's life in perspective, or to try to sum up the whole story and tell it with some honesty, how would I do that? So I looked to those songs as an ideal."

The idea of rebirth eventually became equally important: It's addressed not only in the album's themes, but also in the changes Ward made in the process of creating it.

"I recorded it at a different place," he says, "and my original idea was to keep it eight tracks, as opposed to my first two, which were 16 tracks. I wanted to give myself those limitations of making every track important to the song, whereas when you have 16 tracks, you're tempted to fill them all up, and sometimes that can be too much. I gave in; half the record was done on 16-track."

In that way, Transfiguration is deceiving. On the first couple of listens, the arrangements seem austere--always befitting of what the song needs, and no more. With repeated listens, however, they reveal themselves as no less than ornate. Ward says this is purposeful: "I love to put in sounds that are below the surface."

He also enlisted a new backing band for the new album, some friends from Portland called the Old Joe Clarks. (On his current tour, indie darlings Rilo Kiley serve as his band and headline the shows. Ward hooked up with the band through Bright Eyes, for whom he opened and performed with on last year's fabled full-orchestra tour. He's also toured with, and been backed by, Lambchop, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, and Vic Chesnutt.)

The music found on Transfiguration is rooted in traditional forms (folk-blues, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime), but it's also quirky enough to sound contemporary, and, like the music of Fahey, possesses a certain timeless quality that will, one suspects, be proved over time a few generations from now.

The gorgeously melancholic "Undertaker" begins as a testament to the power of love "when you're treated like you should be," and uses nature scenes as metaphor to prove the point--which should, of course, come off as cliche, but somehow become as sadly beautiful as they aspire to be. But we already know something's wrong, just by the song's delivery, by the tone of Ward's voice. "But if you're gonna leave, better call the undertaker," he nearly whispers. "Take me under, undertaker. Take me home." He goes on to dictate what he wants done with his body once he's gone, and repeats the call to the undertaker, by which point his resignation is so convincing that you nearly want him to reach home--which is to say that you, subversively, want him to die, because it's what he wants. (The sentiment is repeated later, in "Dead Man": "Dead man, believe. You're a free man at last.") The point is emphasized when the next song, "Duet for Guitars #3," references the opening instrumental, signaling a sense of closure.

The album's penultimate song is the only one Ward didn't write, a cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance," dramatically recast as a ballad of romantic longing. In the same way that Chan Marshall deconstructed and reshaped the songs on Cat Power's The Covers Record, Ward's rendition of the song allows you to see it in an entirely different light, once you dispose of your preconceived notions of it. Like the rest of the album, it is, in a word, stunning.

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