pon seeing Little Miss Sunshine this past weekend, a co-worker of mine spent the rest of the night talking about how cool it would be to own a 1970s Volkswagen van, as owned by the film’s tragic-comedic family. Neat. Me too. Old VW buses, like traditional barber shops and dangerous-but-not-too-dangerous dive bars are the type of thing that anyone with even a modicum of personality, or um, soul thinks are pretty cool.
The problem, however, is going on about loving VW buses when you: a) needed an indie rock movie to remind you they existed, and b) have absolutely no intention of pursuing it as an interest. Sure, it’d be nice if you woke up the next morning and it appeared in your driveway, but if there’s significant work required in getting it there? Such is the depth of the devotion.
I feel the same way about M. Ward sometimes. Read any interview with him and he seems to have his heart in the right place: he loves John Fahey—everything from the cut-up, found sound pastiches to the devotion to American roots music. His last album, Transistor Radio, hijacked the rickety appeal of mid-century radio programs. M. Ward probably doesn’t like George W. Bush a whole lot.
These things are all excellent, but is there anybody here not into folk music, “vintage” radio, and liberalism? Then perhaps it’s about damn time for Ward’s enviable interests to start manifesting themselves in the form of truly interesting albums. Because bogged in the middle of his fourth LP, Post-War, it’s abundantly clear that Ward is an indie-rock songwriter—a pretty good one sometimes—who doesn’t bring a whole lot else to the table.
A damn shame, too, because Ward is so likable. He coats his voice in crackly reverb—a little like My Morning Jacket frontman and Post-War contributor Jim James—which gives all of his songs a pleasant, indistinguishable vibe. Ward’s previous work, Transistor Radio in particular, shared a similar fate but skirted by on just enough idiosyncratic moments—“Big Boat”’s oxidized brass rivets, “I’ll Be Yr Bird”’s druggy phrasing—to point thumbs north. But Post-War’s indelible moments are born of stubborn repetition: Ward sings the title of “Right in the Head” until even he starts to sound nauseous, and “Magic Trick,” with James cooing in the background, takes its only real lyric (“She’s got one magic trick / Just one and that’s it”) to heart, filling the entire track with its sugar-rot singalong.
Ward is a talented axe-man, and he does make strides here—moving away from pilfered Fahey plucking and dousing these tracks with wavy, echo-heavy lead lines—but too much of Post-War seems like empty genre aerobics. “Roller Coaster” is the album’s quietest, most affecting moment, but the connect-the-dots barroom piano robs it of its intimacy. Wards opens his throat and reaches deep for the chorus of “Chinese Translation,” but damn if his baritone “What does it take to mend the pieces of a broken heart?” doesn’t sound like hollow country-western crooning.
Ward’s impeccable sound and distinguishable personality is all over Post-War. What isn’t all over this disc is an exploration of that sound or personality. He grabs and mimics, but at the end of the day we’re left with a vaguely folk-y indie rock record—no overt lyrical stances, no gambling with arrangements or song tempos/lengths—and the upsetting sense that M. Ward’s happy with that.