Review Summary: This is M. Ward not taking a look at a general time period, but a tribute to everyone and everything that influenced him. It just so happens that Ward is heavily influenced by artists of a generation before us.
I thought that maybe Post-War was just an experiment for M. Ward, with him looking at 40s and 50s music for inspiration. I think he may be obsessed with the looking into the past, as Transistor Radio is just as vintage and nostalgic. Like listening to the Grand Ole Opry that featured upcoming country artists in its prime, bringing Johnny Cash to prominence as well as helping him meet his future wife, June Carter. The list continues, including Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and so many other country singers. M. Ward is just like them, bringing his guitar and sometimes a small backing band and singing into the microphone. But that’s not the only influence that reaches Transistor Radio. The whole concept of the album was to look back to when radio was real, when there were real DJs playing the music they loved, inherently giving more variety to the songs played. Louis Armstrong’s commercial era, The Beach Boys, and Billie Holliday all put their influence into the album. But M. Ward describes his technique and the style of this album best when he explains chemistry between him and his good friend Conor Oberst.
“Conor invited Jim and me to play this Free Tibet show at Carnegie Hall and it went really well. The chemistry is incredible. We all have a love for simplicity in writing.”
With that final line, what better way to kick off the album than a guitar instrumental cover of The Beach Boys’ You Still Believe in Me
. It’s hard to imagine this as originally a Beach Boys song; the melodies are almost classical sounding. It surely does not draw images of California. Still, it is sweet and simple, setting a mood and atmosphere that pulls the listener into the album immediately. One Life Away
is almost like a second introduction, envisioning what Ward would sound like played through a transistor radio. Still, the album doesn’t really get going until Hi-Fi
, which brings in a full backing band. The lyrics are slurred but catchy as Ward singing into his falsetto when he sings the title. The song is midtempo with a simple but great chord progression and plenty of clean guitar licks to make things interesting, played as though the band is sitting in paradise. Hi-Fi
is fun and immediately accessible, as well as one of the best on the album.
"I think it's the artist's job to blur the lines."
M. Ward lives up to his words, as he blurs many lines of genres with Transistor Radio. Four Hours in Washington
pulls in an upbeat-centric guitar line with a dark bassline that does nothing to accentuate the guitar line. Tribal percussion and Ward’s chant like vocals add more to the chaotic concoction that Four Hours in Washington creates. Lyrically, the song draws many references to Shel Silverstein’s 25 Minutes to Go
, which Johnny Cash made famous on the At Folsom Prison album. It envisions a night in Washington where Ward cannot sleep. He starts hallucinating and going insane, a true story song, an art that has been lost through time. But as far as blurring the lines goes, the album closer Well-Tempered Clavier
shows Ward’s ability to make anything his own. Well-Tempered Clavier
is a Bach cover. Johann Sebastian Bach. Ward achieves this with the use of one guitar and some background organ laying out the chords for him. The chord progression is so obviously Bach, but Ward manages to complete change the song to make a different atmosphere, mainly because he plays the melody on guitar.
“The concept was simply to try to recreate a feeling that I had when I was younger and first discovering radio - it was magical and beyond comprehension.”
This is not an album of depression. It is an album of the pure love of music, stories, and anything resembling honesty and humility. Big Boat
is simply a party, with a piano melody that throws down a feel that no one has used for years. Every time I hear the song, I think about Sam from Casablanca, smiling as h[e croons a beautiful song on his piano in Rick’s Café Américain. Ward describes a man who has a “big boat” and he isn’t using that as sexual innuendo, he’s talking about arrogance and people exaggerating their accomplishments. Of course, Ward is such a humble man that he cannot possibly be accused of hypocrisy on this song’s message. Big Boat
is the simple representation of Ward’s love for what he does, and he makes every listener smile because of it.
“I learned how to play guitar by learning other people’s songs, mainly The Beatles - nothing much has changed – still learning how to write and play by learning other people’s songs.”
Transistor Radio brings in 4 different covers including the Beach Boys and Bach cover. Sweethearts on Parade
is a Louis Armstrong cover, but no one would ever guess that. A distorted guitar and feedback lead the song in, and if there was ever a voice that Ward’s does not resemble, it would be Louis Armstrong’s. They have similar ranges, but Ward possesses a much more somber voice. Oh Take Me Back
sounds the closest to the original recording and artist, a Carter Family original. It has an older country feel to it, and the solitary and longing feel characteristic of that genre of music finds itself on the song. Still, these other two covers are just more songs to the album, they are not standouts. Transistor Radio is 16 tracks but still under 45 minutes, with few songs eclipsing 3 minutes. Most of the album is pure Ward, without much outside assistance. Fuel for Fire
, the album’s longest song and the best, is mostly just Ward and his guitar. It has a lonesome feel, but it isn’t that depressing. It simply sounds like Ward sitting in his home, passing some time by singing. And that’s really the entire album – Ward passing some time.
You Still Believe in Me
Fuel for Fire
Here Comes the Sun Again
Well Tempered Clavier