Every genre of popular music purports to be the bastard child. Jazz is too hoppin’ for the man. Rock‘n’roll is too nihilistic. Blues is the neglected granddaddy of them all. But folk — well, folk can make a real case for itself. Whereas everyone knows Miles Davis’s name and rock‘n’rollers make heroes of both themselves and their forebear’s note-for-note ripping of the blues, folk is still the product of the unholy union between dirty hippies and filthy commies. Its place in the public consciousness is as anachronistic as the “This Machine Kills Fascists” slogan scrawled across Woody Guthrie’s beaten guitar.
Portland, Ore. folk artist M. Ward’s third proper album, Transistor Radio, is an ode to old-time radio. This is a dicey proposition, as Ward is glorifying a media outlet that, save for a few years in the early ’60s before the mop-tops took over America, did nothing to prop up folk music. Folk didn’t have jazz’s dancing jive or rock’s gruff juke: Rather, the genre toiled in the forgotten fields of oppressed laborers and displaced families. It’s odd, then, for Ward to pay homage to a medium that never really supported his predecessors.
However, Transistor Radio’s varied sounds and styles should affirm that Ward isn’t exactly picky when it comes to his art. Here he runs a gamut of old-time Americana — Appalachian moan on “Oh Take Me Back,” strained country on “Paul’s Song” and incandescent folk on “One Life Away.” Ward’s impressive stylistic range is the backbone of the album, which, as it turns out, is a folk work only in mindset.
Those put off by the eerie story arc of Ward’s last effort, The Transfiguration of Vincent, will revel in the open-air warmth of Transistor. Ward’s comforting, everyman voice exposes the soft centers of these songs; the whole album sounds like it’s set in a charmingly dusty oak-paneled parlor. There’s no narrative thread here, just a subtle sense that these songs are connected by the themes of radio yesteryear: weeping hearts, crowded riverboats and long-lost homesteads. On “Radio Campaign,” Ward pleads for his “little piece of mind” to return, and begins “Calling out your name / On this radio campaign.”
“Four Hours in Washington” breaks up the soft acoustic guitar fog of the album’s first half with a confident drumbeat and a snarling, restless speaker. “Big Boat” is similarly refreshing, as a jumpy barroom piano announces the album’s most memorable lyric: “Says he’s got a big boat / It ain’t no carnival cruise / Says he’s got a big boat / But it’s just a ferry boat / Enough to fit an extra one or two.”
At the end, Ward’s emotional connection comes through acoustic redemption, something he achieves on the achingly beautiful “I’ll Be Your Bird.” Over full, smoky chords, Ward whispers, “I’m not your chestnut / I’m not your mole / I’m not your DJ late night radio / I’ll be the first one to ask where you were / I’ll be your bird.”
Transistor Radio is filled with these sorts of gleaming emotional revelations. And while no listener would accuse Ward of being sterile or emotionless, moments like these humanize his skilled compositions, providing the early-A.M. connections that Ward no doubt seeks in America’s fast-disappearing old-time radio stations.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars