M. Ward

Hold Time (Merge Records)

Apr. 23, 2009
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Possibly the most appealing quality about lo-fi folk hero M. Ward-namely that unrelenting pleasantness-could also prove the biggest deal-breaker for new listeners: As Kate Winslet reprimands Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of theSpotless Mind, "I don't need 'nice.'" And so begins Hold Time, Ward's sixth solo studio effort: languid, sunny and oh-so-literary, with nary a thought of Monday morning or war-filled, troubled times.

From the gentle acoustic drive and hopeful beat of the opener, "For Beginners," to the following woozy groove of "Never Had Nobody Like You," to the hand-clapping and thankful tone of Buddy Holly's "Rave On," it's about as affirmative and cheery as any Americana to be found this side of Sufjan Stevens. Throughout, Ward seems to bridge a gap between the formidable fingerpicking sensibilities of Jose Gonzalez and the restrained new-folk crooning and classy polish of Nick Lowe. But a tone that could otherwise offer an optimistic breath of fresh air eventually seems to smile itself into sore cheeks. By the time Don Gibson's weeper "Oh Lonesome Me" or the death-contemplative "Blake's View" arrives, there's little room for the requisite pathos, and little reason for the good vibes to suddenly halt.

While his bookish, independent fan base (much like his own adopted hometown of Portland, Ore.) will find sonic layers to stay lost in, such a luminous ride eventually amounts to an album's worth of lazy Sundays. It's certainly a joy, but maybe unremarkable over the long haul.


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