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With his sandpapery voice and homespun guitar virtuosity, M. Ward is flypaper for a certain indie subset—easygoing romantics fond of sipping beer while sitting around an ironic campfire. Armed with a four-track recorder, the Portland, Ore., songwriter crafts wounded lullabies out of America’s musical detritus, sprinkling ’60s girl-group fairy dust over back-porch blues and smacking country weepers with rockabilly echo. This formula worked brilliantly on 2005’s time-warping Transistor Radio and 2006’s Post-War—and to lesser effect on last year’s Volume One, the first album from She & Him, Ward’s homely duo with the decidedly un-homely Zooey Deschanel. Hold Time is M. Ward’s latest day trip down the dusty backroads of popular culture; thankfully, he remembered to pack some crackerjack tunes. Album opener “For Beginners” is casually upbeat, with nimble acoustic strums and harmonium framing the (literally) Edenic lyrics. “When you’re absolute beginners, it’s a panoramic view/From her majesty Mount Zion, and the kingdom is for you,” Ward sings. This is the first of several numbers on Hold Time to employ imagery of sinners getting saved. But who or what is behind Ward’s conversion? Jesus? Muhammad? Zooey? Maybe it is She: Deschanel joins her artistic soul-mate for “Never Had Nobody Like You,” a fuzz-blues stomper that plays like a twanged-up take on Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” Again, the lyrics reflect spiritual awakening: “I watched my own habits die, and it’s painful/Sometimes it’s painful in the light of the truth/But you can be faster than light/I’d like to thank you tonight.” Strings and piano give the title track a gauzy feel, while “To Save Me,” with its thunderous toms, rudimentary keyboard vamps, and surfin’ doo-wop chorus, scuttles along like a hybrid of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. All of Hold Time’s 14 cuts are righteous (even those that aren’t overtly religious), yet they lack the emotional weight of Ward’s earlier efforts. Nothing here is as arresting as Post-War’s opener “Poison Cup” or as heartbreaking as “Undertaker,” from his 2003 album “Transfiguration of Vincent,” but there are some choice moments. The shimmering “Fisher of Men” features dapper electric guitar and charmingly cracked vocals, while the country standard “Oh Lonesome Me” benefits from a canny guest turn by Lucinda Williams, whose elegantly weary pipes are a perfect match for Ward’s own. M.Ward may have gotten the spirit, but it hasn’t affected his way with a tune. And if he happens to lose his religion, well, that’ll probably sound great, too.
M. Ward performs Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Sixth & I Synagogue.