The “indie” music scene (whatever that means nowadays) is not known for spawning guitar gods. That’s not to say there’s a shortage of solid guitarists on call, but the instrument doesn’t tend to be front and center – at least in the classic rock & roll sense. The instrument tends to be a vehicle for the song, rather than vice versa. Which is probably as it should be, especially when the song is well-crafted and deserves to be the center of attention. M. Ward – equal parts guitarist, songwriter, arranger, producer, and all-round manipulator of soundscapes – understands this, which is why I was looking forward to his latest solo album, A Wasteland Companion.
Much of M. Ward’s appeal lies in his ear for classic, analog “wall-of-sound” production values. Case in point is the stellar opening track from 2006’s Post War; with its vocals and strings drenched in reverb, “Poison Cup” let you know the album was meant to inspire a more involved listening experience. Ward’s albums are best listened to on a good pair of headphones, allowing the listener to catch all of the production nuances and arrangement quirks. A Wasteland Companion similarly rewards an ear for detail, from the descending piano line in the chorus of “Primitive Girl” to the almost childlike solo violin juxtaposed over orchestral strings and fuzzed out guitar on “Crawl After You.”
A Wasteland Companion is a collection of 12 great tracks that each stand up well as individual arrangements. I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed, however, by the album as a whole. The songs don’t quite come together in the same way as Post War or M. Ward’s last solo effort, Hold Time. It’s not necessarily a matter of thematic continuity; A Wasteland Companion shares a similar mix of introspective acoustic numbers (“A Clean Slate”), 60’s style pop love anthems (“Sweetheart”), and darker rockers (“Watch the Show”). But that similarity in the basic formula is partly what makes this collection somewhat of a letdown. I’ve heard variations on these tunes before, and they were packaged with a tighter vision overall on the last two albums.
At the end of the day, 12 great individual tracks from M. Ward are better than no tracks at all. Each song is a mini-study in production, arrangement, and tasteful guitar playing. But if you’re just getting into M.Ward, I would suggest starting with some of the previous entries in his catalog. Then, when you’re ready for more, check out A Wasteland Companion. At the least, it will whet your appetite for what’s coming next from the indie scene’s understated guitar hero.