End Of Amnesia
By: Eric Greenwood
Being compared to an anomaly like Tom Waits is more of a curse than a blessing. Simply put- there"s only one Tom Waits, and anything resembling him will invariably be viewed as a sad rip-off. So when I read that M. Ward sounded like a cross between Tom Waits and indie rock darlings Grandaddy, I feared for the worst. There are few things quite like having your fears about an album quelled to the point that you feel silly for having made any kind of pre-judgment in the first place. M. Ward"s End Of Amnesia did just that, though, and more, putting me at ease by the second song, "Color Of Water."
M. Ward"s stripped down, sometimes southern, sometimes country, but always bare bones and brutally honest music digs its claws deep into your skin and makes you see life through the eyes of a man who needs desperately to clear his throat. "Folk" has always been a bad word in my world because it"s almost always indicative of bad music, but every now and again someone will surface who gives "folk" a good name. M. Ward is one of those rare breeds. His music is quiet and authentic like Neil Young"s was in the early 1970"s (I"m thinking specifically of After The God Rush And Harvest).
His voice may cap his appeal somewhat, but the quality of his songwriting should overcome that obstacle. Not that his voice is bad- it just lacks range and versatility. He croons quietly over his acoustic guitar, but this isn"t frilly hippie music. There"s an edge to his music that"s hard to explain. Maybe it"s his gravelly voice that conveys such toughness. There"s also a level of sincerity inherent to the tunes that makes them even more believable. Like Tom Waits, M. Ward is able to portray emotion without being sappy about it. It"s a lot easier to digest emotion from someone who sounds like he"s seen the bottom of his share of liquor bottles.
Don"t let the rustic tone fool you- there"s actually quite a bit of technology at work on End Of Amnesia. Ward blends vintage found sounds with his acoustic guitar along with shuffling drums and ambient textures. "Half Moon" is a gorgeous example. His rough croon blends in with the sad tone of his guitar perfectly. The bass part kicks on and gives the percussion that extra push that almost makes you tap your feet against your better judgment. In the distant background harmonicas flail and organs hum. Ward experiments with multi-tracking his voice on "So Much Water" to eerie effect. There"s a ghostly feel throughout the album, which Ward seems to be well aware of.
The first few lines of "Bad Dreams" instantly recall Neil Young as Ward floats through his earnest falsetto. His reverb-heavy guitar is accompanied by a soft organ line while vintage radio samples squall in the background. "Archangel Tale" is even more subdued. His voice and guitar are pushed high in the mix but there"s always action in the background. Most of it is too quiet to identify. What sounds like a cat"s meow could easily be a saw. Bells and organs and harps"it"s like a mini honky tonk orchestra is always just out of range.
Half way through the album M. Ward reveals his aggressive side. "Silvertone" is a steel guitar led backwoods foot-stomping instrumental, and "Flaming Heart" incorporates fifties rock and roll flair. The strange radio frequencies still haunt beneath the surface, though. "From A Pirate Radio Sermon, 1989" is the only song that could disguise itself as indie rock and fit in- the retro-fuzz aligning it with the likes of Elf Power and that ilk. Despite a few detours, though, M. Ward"s strength is his dark acoustic folk, and End Of Amnesia impressively showcases his raw songcraft.