Pre-Screening: M. Ward

Album: Hold Time
Artist: M. Ward
Label: Merge
Due Out: February 17th

Bright must be the new black. In what has already been a very notable year for music, M. Ward's latest effort, Hold Time, is already standing tall, much due to its bright and personal nature. In past years, it has seemed that a more distant and subdued sound was what the best albums were made of, but so far in 2009, we've seen a clear departure from this tendency. What has caused it? Perhaps the current economic times are making artists try to focus on the more pleasant and simple aspect of life. Maybe it's reflective of renewed optimism. One can't know for sure, but it is indeed, welcome.

Hold Time starts with the aptly named "For Beginners," a great mood setting piece about the search for, and discovery of, religion. Ward's classic and smoky vocal style is the proper vehicle for the visualization, as it easily conveys a personal and meaningful journey. Then, just in case you had forgotten the incredibly successful She & Him, Zooey Deschanel reunites with Ward on the second track, "Never Had Nobody Like You"- a pleasant song which would have easily fit on 2007's Volume One, but still does quite well here. The themes of the ease and simplicity of one's love for another, presented in somewhat 1960s packaging made possible by Deschanel's presence, seem to roll off the tongue- a smooth and natural track which will be sure to make year-end lists everywhere. The first half of the record does a fantastic job of maintaining an aesthetic, with one seemingly drifting from song to song, all keep themselves under three and a half minutes. While Hold Time is nearly 45 minutes long, I can't help but feel as if it breezes by, even with more relaxed songs, such as the largely instrumental "Hold Time" (see video posted her from earlier this month) and Buddy Holly cover "Rave On".

The second half of Hold Time presents a more subdued tempo, while still keeping up with the positive and engaging nature of the earlier part. Most of these tracks take the shape of apparent second-guessing and realizations. It's here that we are treated to much of the existentialism and inner thought one is generally accustomed to when listening to Ward. Songs such as "Fisher of Men," "Blake's View" and "Shangri-La" draw your attention with honesty and a vibe that gets you to imagine walking in a circle of thought. Ward is aided by an appropriately-chosen cast including the aforementioned Deschanel, Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Lucinda Williams, and Tom Hagerman (DeVotchka) in putting together a dynamic and intelligent piece of art, more endearing with each listen. As firmly as your hand is grabbed to start the record, it is just as softly released at the end. The songs gracefully escort you out, and walk you to the door of whatever mindset you were in before listening in a way seen only so often in today's music world.

As Andrew Bird's Noble Beast was, and Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion could very well end up being, Hold Time is M. Ward's best work to date. And it was obvious on my first listen. The record hands you a mood to be in and a mindset to exist within. Over the past 12 months, Ward has shown us, through the execution of two great records for two different projects, that he is evolving as an artist for the better. If the first two months of releases are any indication of what we're in for from a music standpoint this year, I'm pleased and excited for what's on the horizon. For those looking for a comparison to M. Ward, check out Andrew Bird, Iron & Wine and Conor Oberst's solo work.

Rating: 8.5/10

Best Track: "To Save Me"

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