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M Ward | End Of Amnesia (Loose)
There is no doubt that having famous and influential friends is advantageous in life, and there is equally no doubt that should your name be persistently dropped by said friend, that those who admire the torch carrier will be, at the very least, curious. How many would have gravitated automatically and immediately to Grant Lee Buffalo or Vic Chesnutt, for example, had Michael Stipe not wibbled on about them when he did? Would we have taken so much instant notice of Rainer or Grandaddy without insistent prods from Howe Gelb? He spoke a lot about them, and he has been speaking a lot about M(att) Ward. Herein lies the secret as to why we follow these paths ?? you will always accredit your heroes with excellent taste. On this occasion, however, Gelb has merely slightly delayed what will surely be immediate universal acclaim. It would be ridiculous and a travesty were that not to happen. As I write, M.Ward's incredible UK debut, End Of Amnesia is yet to be released, but I fully expect widespread praise and sales to match other unlikely successes of this year such as Kings of Convenience and Turin Brakes. Within the first five minutes of this album, it's somewhat obvious that this 27 year-old Portland, Oregon native is a bit special. The brief instrumental title track opener features acoustic guitar playing of such gentleness, it's as if the instrument were leaning against a porch being caressed by a breeze. And then, there is Color Of Water, an Hawaiian folk-blues of only two verses and choruses where Ward's sad, husky voice enters with shades of Neil Young and Jason Lytle. Wherever harmonies appear, as here and on the Cajun-Soul hybrid So Much Water, you are literally mugged for breath. The guitar playing is as affecting; picking of delicacy and dexterity that echo the unearthly purity of say, John Fahey or Leadbelly. The best illustrations of this are the four-part campfire lament, Psalm and the euphorically loose jug-band blues of Silverline, but it remains fluid throughout. The ballads are sensational: Ella (a hymn to Ms. Fitzgerald, the lyrics more than suggest) sounds like the final song of the ballroom house band's set on a miserable winter's afternoon, and is good as most anything written by Tom Waits; the cracked and haunting Archangel Tale features whale song, but there's not a hint of New Age about it ?? quite the contrary. Much of what makes End Of Amnesia the release to redefine 'Americana' lies in the production; Ward has dropped in, often seemingly at random, constant references to the past, including his musical heritage as an American. There is a real sense of history about proceedings ?? creaking doors, ghostly whispers, locomotive whistles and ancient crackly radio transmissions of singing saws and forgotten tenors. Appealing to the romantic, it is these effects that crystallize the entire album, evoking Steinbeck-esque images of rural struggle from the dustbowl to the Delta. The packaging maintains the sepia-splashed imagery, with fragments of old letters and odd photos of bygone fashion amid dusty, rusty washes of brown. So hats off to Howe (and Loose), as Matt Ward joins that group of artists whose future releases will ever be anticipated as events ?? just like his friends. Magnificent.

Tom Sheriff
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001