. Ward is old school. Not Will Farrell Old School. Not Run DMC low-top Adidas old school. He’s so old school that he dedicates Transistor Radio to all the remaining independent and open format disc jockeys still out there spinning their spell across the airwaves. M. Ward is a denizen of the old school mindset, a place where music is less a commodity and more a part of the fabric of community, where music is a central gathering point, often around a radio or on a front porch with a sunset glowing against a slackening horizon; a place where the radio stations that influenced our youth aren’t cast aside in the interest of a bottom line.
At times Ward seems to be broadcasting directly from a mid-century locale of indefinite placement. It’s a sound that belongs, but isn’t limited to, another era; an era steeped in the delta blues, the honor of war stories, and lazy afternoons. This is due in part to the unusual tenor of Ward’s voice, a wavering breathy thing that weaves in and out of his stellar fret work complementing the songs more than directing them, acting as more a side player than a central figure. The album’s ragtime piano, doo-wop harmonies, pump organ, slide guitar, and occasionally grainy production (The Old Joe Clarke’s Mike Coykendall produces most of the songs) makes Transistor Radio feel out right antique compared to much of what is being offered on mainstream radio. But for Ward that sharp relief is the point.
Album opener “You Still Believe Me” is a two and a half minute instrumental that closes with the warm hum of a tube radio as Ward’s acoustic guitar rides the white hush into “One Life Away” which literally sounds as if it was recorded by placing condenser mics next to a radio broadcast of the song. “One Life Away” segues into “Sweethearts On Parade” a song that was a hit for Louis Armstrong in 1932. In typically contradictory style Ward updates “Sweethearts On Parade” with a wall of gentle feedback and a steady beat. These first three songs provide a sepia background for Transistor Radio. It’s an inimitable style that Ward has developed carefully since Transfiguration Of Vincent, a tricky dance that balances nostalgia with a wary eye on the more modern trappings of pop music. Indeed the guest musicians on Transistor Radio read like a who’s-who of the indie rock world. In addition to the talents of producer Coykendall, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), John Parish (PJ Harvey), Rachel Blumberg (The Decemberists), Vic Chestnutt, and Nick Luca all contribute.
There are more high points on this record than should reasonably be allowed. “Hi-Fi” is a steady trot through the celebration of music’s power, ”let me turn the volume up / Get a little bit of hi-fi / Drown out all the sirens in the back of my mind”. It’s a perfectly sweet romp through Ward’s delicate interlacing of acoustic and electric guitars. “Fuel for Fire” is a somber meditation on loneliness. “Paul’s Song” is pushed along by the pedal steel work of Paul Brainard. “Oh Take Me Back” is pure homage to the doo-wop of the 50’s and 60’s, updated with enough jangle and rattling percussion to make it a Ward original.
Ward’s only failure in his bid to create a paean to another era is Transistor Radio’s length. In an effort to recreate the feel of vinyl records, the album is meant to be heard as two distinct sides—each eight songs long. This is well and good for a listening experience in which you must pause, reflect and flip the album over. But for a CD, this 16-song length feels padded. There is some filler here, as if Ward’s nostalgic past is losing out to the modern attention span. But is this Ward’s misstep or our inability to understand and follow his intentions? Either way, Transistor Radio is a success.
Reviewed by: Peter Funk
Reviewed on: 2005-02-25