ALBUM REVIEW: M. Ward – ‘Think Of You’: Portland guitar wonder seduces with Billie Holiday set

YOUR humble scribe has loved Portland’s M. Ward since right back in the days of The Transfiguration of St Vincent – his beautiful 2003 album full of his mellifluous voice, incredible guitar skills (if you’ve ever seen him live, you can pay testament to him somehow being two or three guitarists at once) and songs that seems to echo down across the decades from some lost, seductive place of classic romantic songwriting on longwave, caught in the ether.

So in many ways it’s no surprise – a really good fit, even, that he’s announced a full album of songs performed by Billie Holiday, Think of Spring, which the folks at ANTI- will be releasing this Friday, December 11th.

Bringing to bear all his low-key but very real six-string wizardry, he achieved the intimate sound of this record by filtering the original songs and strings through a single acoustic guitar, employing alternate tunings and keeping the studio manipulation to a minimum; most of the songs were recorded on an Tascam analogue four-track.

The album title, Think of Spring, comes from a poem written in 1924 by Jane Brown-Thompson that eventually became ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ in 1938 – the first song on the record. 

M. Ward says of his own long love for the music of Lady Day: “I first heard Lady In Satin in a mega-shopping mall somewhere in San Francisco. I was about 20 years old and didn’t know much about Billie’s records or her life or how her voice changed over the years.

“Anyway, the sound was coming from the other side of the mall and I remember mistaking her voice for a beautiful perfectly distorted electric guitar – some other-world thing floating there on this strange mournful ocean of strings and I was hooked for life.”  

It’s M. Ward’s second album of the year, and his eleventh in total, following Migration Stories back in late spring. Let’s see how he and Lady Day get along.

M. Ward, photographed by Holly Andres

We begin with that classic, “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, and we’re straight into a beautiful and romantic world; that voice, no doubt that vintage mic, those guitar skills. I have to say, for my money, you have to go some bloody way to beat Dirk Bogarde’s version, but the simple seduction of this version; well, all the aesthetic of early classic “Half Moon” transposed onto a wee small hours, fingers absently trailing the rim of your shot glass, yearning classic? Win.

And that so sets the tone for could actually be M. Ward’s best album for a good while. “For Heaven’s Sake”, like the previous track, and like all bar the one on this album, it’s one Billie laid down on her 1958 Columbia debut album, Lady In Satin; and like his version of “Let’s Dance”, Ward accords it total respect while making it his hazy-dazy, languid own, with a delightfully simple guitar break. That’s seduction.

M. Ward says of his approach: “It still feels good to invent new guitar tunings and use them to help deconstruct old songs: Billie Holiday’s ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ in a modified open B.” 

“It’s Easy To Remember” is a duskier, huskier reading, a little darker in tone, with Ward’s voice (why does it seem so not the done thing to refer to him as Matt or Matthew? I daren’t) cracking emotively; while “You’ve Changed” is a masterful essay in stripped-back bluesy riffs, reverb, rest bars full of atmosphere.

“Violets For Your Furs” is a strumalong sway, taking the original to the fireside, simplicity itself and absolutely none the worse for it; you’ll find it a struggle to imagine these songs swingin’ with the full crescendo weight of Ray Ellis and Orchestra as originally recorded more than 60 years back. That’s saying something. Ward brings just the right weight of implicit, sad reminiscence as he remembers bringing his amour violets; he lets the song break down a little into arpeggio before bringing it back with a 6/8 swing and a little falsetto and rhetorically carefree insouciance.

The intro to “For All We Know” is this miniature masterclass in crisp guitar mastery; Ward’s voice is neatly husky and honeyed for this tale of a brief encounter. Crikey, though; they knew how to do romance in three minutes flat back then, right? “But Beautiful”; well, what it says on the tin, gloriously serenading in string-squeak and arcane tunings.

“All The Way” is the only track not taken from Lady In Satin – it comes instead from 1959’s self-titled set, again with Ray Ellis, for MGM. And here it’s the sort of lovely and powerful little song you’d sing underneath your intended’s window by moonlight – if you had a tenth of M. Ward’s talent, it might even work.

“I’m A Fool To Want You” is slow, so slow, so beautifully slow, it would’ve sat in great company on The End Of Amnesia . “I’ll Be Around” has a tearful strength, all the grace and resolution that comes from emotional hurt that still won’t stop you lovin’. “I’ll be around when he’s gone”, Ward sings, almost choking off the last word; “And when things go wrong, maybe you’ll see, you were meant for me.” The middle break is a lovely nuanced craft of just enough melody to convey everything. It fades out, just like the best old songs used to.

A really cracking set ends with the bleak “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, which has a ghostly chill and a lovely acoustic ring.

Ward’s pulled off quite a neat trick here. It has many of the appurtenances of a seasonal album without quite being one; of course, it’s a genre he’s played with before to sweet effect with Zooey Deschanel in She & Him. Think of Spring has all that timelessness and warmth and implied urge to reach for a little snifter of booze of the best holiday albums; it’s sweet and very lovely indeed. Actually, I reckon it could be M. Ward’s best album in a good while, proving that all he really needs is some decently retro recording equipment and a guitar to be at his very best. Just let the tapes roll.

Oh – it’s also got a good cause thing going: proceeds from the album will benefit Inner-City Arts & DonorsChoose via PLUS1 for the Black Lives Fund.

M. Ward’s Think Of Spring will be released by ANTI- on digital download, CD, trad black and translucent orange vinyl on December 11th; you can pre-order your copy here.

Follow M. Ward on Instagram, at his website, on Facebook and on Twitter.

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