Change of Heart

M. Ward's new album is damn fine folk -- from a guy who used to ignore folk music

Recorded in the middle of 1998, the resultant solo debut, Duet for Guitars #2, is a low-key wonder. The tunes are intimate, sounding as if Ward were sitting on the back porch, singing to his lazy hound dog. Besides the occasional brushed drum or plucked mandolin by Selzer or backup vocal by For Stars leader Carlos Forster (who went to college with Ward), the album is mostly the singer and his guitar. The emphasis is on his delicate picking, his cracked croon, and his lyrics, which vacillate between the understated nostalgia of "Beautiful Car" and the rural surrealism of "He Asked Me to Be a Snake & Live Underground." Duet is the kind of record that Johnson or Cotton would've admired.

In fact, the album is so endearing that it inspired Giant Sand leader Howe Gelb to finally start his long-rumored record label, Ow Om. Ward had given Gelb a rough cassette copy of Duet at a Seattle show in late '98, only to have Gelb call him a week later with the offer to release it on Ow Om.

Duet came out in early '99, in a die-cut package with a moody cover painted by Ward's musical godfather, John King. Gelb then took Ward on tour with Giant Sand; Ward opened shows and played lap steel guitar with the band throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Laurent Orseau

"I definitely learned a lot about improvisation," Ward says of the tours. "With Howe, you just learn to go with it and try to stay in the moment as long as possible. There's no rehearsals, no set songs."

When it came time to start working on his next record, Ward had internalized Gelb's spontaneity. "His influence was there in subconscious ways. This record is a little more playful than the last one. I felt free to play with ideas and go out on a limb."

End of Amnesia took two years to finish, in part because Ward joined more tours, this time with Grandaddy and the Willard Grant Conspiracy, but also because he wanted a grander scope. To that end, Ward and Selzer began adding more textures to the songs, including samples from 78s played on an old Victrola crank turntable.

"I had this song, "Bad Dreams,' that I felt like [a 78] would fit on. I wasn't really expecting to keep it, but after a few listens [I realized] it fit perfectly."

Ward ended up weaving samples of Mance Lipscomb, Jimmy Rodgers, and Big Bill Broonzy throughout the record, not just at the beginning of songs but in the midst of choruses.

"I thought it was amusing to have, instead of a gnarly guitar part, a sample from the '30s," Ward says in reference to "Flaming Heart," the record's one rocker. After a tinkly toy piano intro, the song builds to a crescendo -- only to move into a warbly vocal sample rather than the expected guitar solo. The fact that the song's title comes from Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" makes the tune even more oddly familiar.

"A lot of [the lyrics] come from one particular line of a song," Ward admits. "It makes me feel good to be part of [a] tradition. It's something I'm hungry for in general, and so to be able to cre- ate some semblance of that is important to me."

Ward's songwriting places him in another fine tradition, one comprised of talented storytellers like John Prine, Lucinda Williams, and Leonard Cohen. Songs like the elegant "O'Brien" -- the story of three old friends meeting on a baseball diamond, inspired by David Lynch's The Straight Story -- or the Tom Waits-ian "Seashell Tale," in which a porcupine pokes the narrator's cactus hide, swim in vivid details. Part of the reason for the success of such songs is Ward's conversational delivery: Every moment feels thoroughly lived.

"There's a realism there; he's just a real dude," says Dennis Mitchell, co-owner of Future Farmer, which is putting out End of Amnesia. "Some guys write a song about driving their dad's old car, and you say, "I really liked that song about you and the car,' and they say, "What car? I made that up.' Not Matt. You can tell he's lived his songs."

Ward's playing is equally genuine. Instrumentals like "Psalm" and "Silverline" have a timeless quality that could easily stand against a '40s Hawaiian ballad or a '60s blues tune. But Ward isn't just deifying the past; he's creating something new. Each listen reveals a fresh sonic touch -- the ricocheting string feedback of "Half Moon," the wind chimes of "Archangel Tale," or the cascading steel guitar of "Color of Water." End of Amnesia is as much a headphone experience as a back-porch record.

"I feel like the old music is not so different from new music," Ward says. "Giant Sand isn't terribly different from Hank Williams if you take away all the peripherals."

Ward's fans, new and old, obviously agree. Following a review on NPR's All Things Considered, End of Amnesia rose to No. 14 on Amazon's CD sales list on its first day of release. (Radiohead was down at No. 30.) Maybe there's a place for heartfelt, well-constructed, idiosyncratic folk music after all -- even if it takes a 27-year-old former indie rocker to craft it.

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