M. Ward

Merge

A concept record dedicated to radio is like an abstract painting celebrating realism—medium and subject matter just don’t seem suited for each other. Portland, Ore., songwriter M. Ward insists that his fourth full-length, Transistor Radio, “was designed to be heard on vinyl in two segments…side A and side B.” Yet the medium it champions was best consumed piecemeal—in cars, on the beach, at the occasional family picnic. Good thing, then, that Ward avoids the tedious reprises and transition pieces that have weighed down “idea records” ever since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (There, I said it.) Instead, he’s created a glistening collection of, well, radio hits for some parallel universe not owned by Clear Channel. Ward’s intricate, blissful guitar-pickin’ has drawn John Fahey comparisons, but his crushingly intimate voice is the real Radio star. On tracks such as the indie-cum-ragtime “One Life Away,” the vocals are shoved to the front, leaving Ward’s Leonard Cohen–esque monotone hanging with relatively little instrumental support. “To all the people underground/Listening to the sound/Of the living people walking up and down their graves,” he sings in a near-whisper. “Well, one of them is mine.” Hokey, perhaps, but haunting: a scratched 78 broadcasting into an empty room. “Hi-Fi,” an ode to the talking box à la the Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll,” pulls off a similar (if more up-to-date) trick, veering toward preciousness with a playful, warbling synth before setting itself straight with one dispassionately intoned line: “Why burn your bridges when you can blow your bridges up?” Even as he out–Elliott Smiths Elliott Smith on “I’ll Be Yr Bird” or invokes Tom Waits on “Four Hours in Washington,” Ward is able to use his gritty, disconnected delivery to keep things well out of wincing range. Only the stuffy blues “Big Boat” and the corny George Harrison homage “Here Comes the Sun Again” come up short—Ward’s slight baritone wasn’t built for a 12-bar shout, and he’s bigger than a Beatles tribute. But those are essentially quibbles. Signing off after just 43 minutes, this think piece is neither overlong nor self-important—a collection of songs, not arias. Perhaps Transistor Radio really has captured its subject’s essence: This one’s gotta count, because there’s always another tune coming after yours.—Justin Moyer