Matt Ward has been quietly earning almost universal respect in indie circles over the last ten years, and returns with a record marking a progression in his sound. He now marries his rootsy blues to the pop sensibilities of the sixties that had been explored with Zooey Deschanel in last years impressive She & Him project, but produces mixed results.
Like with previous releases featuring Jenny Lewis and Neko Case, Ward once again invites a selection of ladies to add to the texture of his album. Lucinda Wiliiams’s voice is a bit like marmite: Aside from inferring that you will either love it or hate it, it is also viscous, gurgling and requires sober judgment when considering what to serve it with– the latter obviously missing with her guest appearance on ‘Oh Lonesome Me’, as their similar gravely vocals give the peculiar impression that they are doing impressions of each other.
Deschanel’s presence on ‘Never Had Nobody Like You’ and Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave on’, however, turn them into true highlights of the album. The sweetness and distance of Deschanel’s harmony providing a solid ground for his distorted guitar on the first, while the Holly cover utilises the often tiring Spectoresque wall-of-sound production technique of the album to winningly combine two distinct eras of musical history.
Some of Ward’s own compositions, however, aren’t quite as successful: The title track sounds a little like the piped world music you might hear in a second-rate health spa. In other places he seems to be treading old ground, ‘Fisher of Men’ and ‘To Save Me’ bearing a little too much similarity to ‘Chinese Translation’ and ‘Big Boat’ from previous albums respectively
This is essentially still a good album, but too many songs lack any distinctive character. More attention to melody, and this album could have been stunning; as it stands, it’s a sad case of style over substance.