My personal entry point to M. Ward’s music was End of Amnesia, Ward’s second album, but first great offering overall. There was an old-timey quality about his music, a curious anachronistic warmth that made it stand out long before the influx of `freak-folk’ artists made their way to the ears and to the lexicons of indie genre chasers. There’s something special about Ward’s way with music, unfussed and laid back, yet precise and executed wonderfully, resulting in outstanding album after outstanding album, his last release, Post-War being a notable achievement and a step away from his earlier, rustic sounding records. Yet in its wake, Merge offers a look back at Ward’s first release, the lo-fi, almost Elephant 6 like Duet For Guitars #2.
Though Ward may have refined his sound and eventually earned the production budget that would do his songs justice, Duet For Guitars #2 merely hints at the achievements his audience would later behold. Being that this is his debut, it sounds like the work of a young artist rough around the edges. Though Ward was never really one for excessive studio polish, these songs have a rawness about them, both in production and in performance, that make their nostalgic quality all the more charming.
In spite of Duet‘s roughness, it should come as little surprise that much of Ward’s songs here are quite lovely, occasionally reaching the heights of his best work on Post-War or Transistor Radio. The title track is a beautiful instrumental, beginning the album with a John Fahey-like excursion into rustic Americana. “Beautiful Car” is a touching and pretty ballad about washing cars after school. Ward goes electric on the rocking “Fishing Boat Song,” a fuller, fleshed-out rock song highlight. Yet “Song From #12,” with its Malkmus-like voice cracks, finds Ward going into a forseeable indie pop direction yet not quite getting there, sounding even a bit too raw at parts. “Look Me Over” makes up for some of the more loosely constructed tracks with its upbeat, Byrds-like jangle, suggesting that Ward’s earlier days found him still comfortable within the dynamic of a band, while his solo songs, though pretty, didn’t always have the same spark.
Most artists will have progressed significantly eight years after their debut release, and M. Ward is no exception. Listening to Duet For Guitars #2 it’s easy to hear hints of what came afterward, and for good reason. His style hasn’t changed a whole lot over the last decade, as he’s still strumming out classic folk-rock with intricate musicianship and relaxed, old school sensibilities. M. Ward has merely gotten a lot better at what he does.
M. Ward – End of Amnesia
Andrew Bird – Weather Systems
Sparklehorse – Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.