In his fourth album with Merge Records, M. Ward delivers a work that is both varied and uncharacteristically upbeat, a welcome change that is most likely the product of several guests’ presence on the album, Hold Time, including the simply adorable Zooey Deschanel (The Happening).
The tracks featuring Deschanel show a coherence that was lacking in some of the more shrill pieces on the duo’s first combined effort as She and Him in Volume One. Certainly one of the highlights of the album, “Never Had Nobody Like You” waxes pop-country with masterful harmonizing and catchy foot-tap-inducing drum-lines, and is proof that this pair is developing a tempered, more mature sound.
Montana’s hairy Jason Lytle of Grandaddy also makes an appearance on “Rave On.” Here, he and M. Ward produce some brilliant solos that are the best shows of musicianship on the album.
Perhaps the winning guest is Lucinda Williams, whose richly rough vocalizing offers a whole other dimension to “O Lonesome Me,” a grainy feel that compliments M. Ward’s love of the classics.
Fans of M. Ward’s earlier works need not worry however, Hold Time still features plenty of classic solo tracks, complete with soothing vocals and the sonic layering that give M. Ward’s albums that mellow, old-timey feel that Transistor Radio made so famous.
What is ultimately unnerving about Hold Time is that, while M. Ward’s stand-alone tracks are pretty, they have an attractiveness developed on comfortable standards and minimal risk-taking. The tracks that really stick out on this album are the collaborative pieces, leaving one to wonder how long it is before M. Ward acquiesces to focusing on the She and Him endeavor or decides to give noise rock a try.
This is a minor criticism, however, as fans of M. Ward have never expected anything cutting-edge from this traditionalist who continues to produce unquestionably listenable, beautifully melodic works.