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Nothing warms a rock geek's bleeding heart quite like finding meaningful sounds where they're least expected. We trawl record stacks, haunt dingy bars, pore over fanzines, and search out the scratchiest stations on the radio dial, all with the faint hope of unearthing those glints of greatness. Like beat reporters and private eyes, we also cultivate our favorite sources of hot tips. One of my most reliable tipsters, the singer and songwriter Deanna Varagona, put me on the trail of my latest find, M. Ward. The Portland, Oregon musician's latest disc, Transfiguration of Vincent (Merge), is the closest thing to a masterpiece I've heard this year.
The album is Ward's third, and it reveals him to be a master of synthesis. I can't decide whether the songs owe more to prewar folk and blues or lo-fi pop, but I know I haven't heard anything quite like them before. The 11 original tunes are as likely to build on droll nursery-rhyme cadences as to break down in guitar fuzz; they're interspersed with a few guitar and piano instrumentals and a woozy, late-night take on David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Ward's voice is a subtle, supple instrument that slides effortlessly into a warm falsetto, drops as easily to deadpan, or just hums comfortably in a dusky mid-range. His arrangements focus on the organic sounds of wood and wire, but they're decorated throughout with surprising touches (the album opens with a looped bit of chirping crickets that starts as a mood-setter and eventually becomes the song's beat).
Then there's the subject matter: Death, specifically the passing of one Vincent O'Brien, a close friend to Ward. Heartsick or humorous, but never hokey, Ward's songs transform plain grief into a celebration of the essentially absurd, precarious nature of life. In that light, the album's title functions as a mission statement; it's also an homage to a record that gave Ward one of his own epiphanies: John Fahey's 1965 album The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death.
"I got into his music about six years ago," Ward told me in a recent phone interview. He says he quickly became "sort of obsessive about his records," and in Vincent you can hear the echoes of Fahey's revolutionary approach to folk guitar; his passion for simple gear, simpler arrangements, and sparse production; even his knack for creating characters of almost mythic proportions. "You sort of feel like Fahey's creating his own mythology," Ward says. "And I like the idea that music can do that if it wants to. There is, I think, a really amazing version of history that you can get by listening to his records, and in these awful Bush Administration times, it's nice for me to have some sort of connection to the place that I live. The mythology that Fahey created is a pretty amazing entryway into that world for me."
In keeping with the record's theme, Fahey's spell over Ward didn't end with the obscure legend's death in February 2001. In fact, it spurred a second revelation, one that arrived at Fahey's memorial service, where a succession of the musician's friends and family members played his songs. In those performances Ward saw what he remembers as "a strange transfiguration. I'd never known music to have that power," he says. "It was an important thing for me to witness, and broadened the way I looked at what music can achieve. I asked myself, if I had to do this for a friend, what would I say? A piece of music that's entirely sad or entirely happy doesn't seem like it's telling the whole story, and to be able to sum up someone's life in three minutes is an amusing ideal to set for myself in music."
So Ward took Fahey's musical ideas and the power of his memorial service--plus more than an album's worth of song snippets culled from three years of four-tracking--to the attic studio of Mike and Jill Coykendall, fellow Portlanders who play music as the Old Joe Clarks.
The resulting sessions yielded Transfiguration of Vincent, and a subsequent deal with Merge made it the first widely available album of Ward's young career. What's more, Ward has been touring hard ever since, supporting the likes of Bright Eyes, Vic Chesnutt, and Lou Barlow. That means chances for other rock geeks to uncover Ward's talents--which, says Giant Sand's Howe Gelb (who stumbled across an early cassette of Ward's and eventually released his first album), is its own reward. The discovery of a great new artist is like learning a secret language, but what good is a language that no one else speaks? "The big payoff," Gelb says, "is seeing the music finally being celebrated and savored. It makes life make more sense."