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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Faintly Familiar Sound of M. Ward

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M. Ward is familiar. He may, in fact, be the familiar-ist musician of this century. His music is plucked from the furthest reaches of your long-term memory, from songs you can't quite remember, from bands whose names get lost on the tip of your tongue. He swivels from Johnny Cash to Chuck Berry to Roy Orbison, and channels Buddy Holly just as well in his own work as he does in a cover of Holly's "Rave On."

A careful inspection of most college-student record collections will turn up three or four albums they didn't know Ward performed on, albums from My Morning Jacket to Jenny Lewis, Norah Jones, Neko Case and Bright Eyes, whose Conor Oberst once yelled "M. Ward for president" to close a performance on "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn" in 2004, before most Oberst fans knew who M. Ward was.

"I'm lucky to have a lot of talented friends," Ward says. They're pretty lucky to have him, too, and they're lucky he didn't take Oberst up on the political offer-the actress Zooey Deschanel more than most.

By not running for president, Ward had plenty of time to record a duet with Deschanel for the movie The Go-Getter, she the star of the film and he the majority of the soundtrack. The duet spawned something more: an outlet for the lifetime of songs Deschanel had written in secret. With Ward, Deschanel formed She & Him, a duo that debuted with Volume One last year. The band is similarly timeless like Ward's solo work, but is of a different vintage. If Ward's music comes from an era that's impossible to place, She & Him played songs from whatever decade came next.

If it weren't for his many "talented friends," it would be easy to mistake Ward for a curmudgeon living in a shack in Montana. Two decades later, he still records his albums on the four-track that he bought when he was 15. He doesn't listen to much modern music, but seeks out new oldies. As his music evolves, it becomes more firmly rooted in the sounds of the past.

"I love the process that I started when I was a kid," he says. "I found that you don't need new equipment to update your sound-all you need to update your process is inspiration."

Even if M. Ward's process is steeped in nostalgia, Ward doesn't expect his audience to be. He claims only a "distant sense" of his audience's reference points.

"I expect them to recognize some things and not recognize some things," he says, summarizing his relationship with his audience as a Zen Koan. "Every song needs to have a balance between familiar and unfamiliar."

But Ward isn't particularly curious about what is and isn't familiar about him-just that it all somehow resonates. It's that approach which has brought an incredibly wide audience to his music, across a wide range of ages, all latching on for different reasons. His latest record, Hold Time, is a different experience for his older fans and for the younger ones, for the people who own a Buddy Holly record and the hipsters who just wear his glasses. And with that type of broad support, maybe he really could be president.

M. Ward headlines an 8 p.m. show Friday, April 24, at the Pabst Theater with The Watson Twins.