Merge Records is reissuing M. Ward’s classic Transistor Radio, and MAGNET’s longtime contributor Jud Cost wrote the liner notes. Check them out below.
M. Ward: The Vinylization Of A Masterpiece (And Much More)
By now, just about everyone who loves “indie rock” knows the legend of M. Ward. I haven’t seen Matt play live for a few seasons now, or interviewed him recently for one of the mags I write for (MAGNET, Blurt, Bucketfull, Sonic).
But I can still recall the basic facts of life concerning this wondrous California kid who began life in the Thousand Oaks area, a short drive north from greater Los Angeles. On nights he wasn’t venturing south to hear fave punk stalwarts Firehose, he’d record his own edgy yet beautiful melodies very late at night in his bedroom, laying the guitar chords on like toothpaste and softly crooning into his four-track porta-studio—just so he wouldn’t wake up anyone else in the family.
That, so he says now, is why his voice is so unusual, with, for some weird reason, just a touch of Delta bluesmen from 60 years ago. I know, I know, it sounds crazy: Big Joe Williams, Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton and … M. Ward? But something’s going on there that I can’t really explain. And I like it a lot.
By the time he’d enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, about 200 miles to the north, he was ready for some kind of cryptic nickname. He got it (and it wasn’t “T-Bone”). His pals called him “M. Ward” just for fun, as if they had arrived at the curious moniker by reading the address label from his junk mail.
The first time I heard anyone mention the name M. Ward was during an interview with Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, a few years after the turn of the century. Howe, who became Matt’s mentor in his early days, told me of two up-and-coming rockers to look out for: M. Ward and Jason Lytle of the Modesto, CA, band Grandaddy. As you would expect of Gelb, he nailed it. It was a great pleasure to pick the brains of both of these young geniuses in the years that followed.
You probably know the rest. Matt would go on to do big things worthy of his vast talent. Last time I saw him live, he had sold out the gargantuan (and lovely) Fox Theater in Oakland. The girls were screaming, too, as soon as he poked his nose out from behind the stage curtain. After that, he hooked up with old friend Conor Oberst of Nebraska’s Bright Eyes, a band so tapped into the firmament that it got a mention in Richard Linklater’s brilliant, 12-years-in-the-making film Boyhood.
Conor and Matt were joined by Jim James of My Morning Jacket and drummer Mike Mogis to create the always fascinating ad hoc combo Monsters Of Folk, a sometime project that appears whenever they feel like it. They recently wowed a crowd at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit Concert in Mountain View, CA. And for those stationed on Antarctica for the last five years, Matt and Zooey Deschanel, the star of TV sitcom New Girl, have paired up as She & Him and recently cut material for a new album.
Best for last, Merge Records has just released Matt’s mind-blowing 2005 album Transistor Radio on vinyl. If you totally lost it when you first heard the masterful CD version of the opening track, a lump-in-the-throat, instrumental reworking of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds gem “You Still Believe In Me,” wait until you feel the sun scorch your face from the ultra-warm PVC treatment. Better keep some Coppertone handy.
On the other hand, “Fuel For Fire” has enough country heartbreak it should have been covered by George Jones. And then there’s “Four Hours In Washington,” the insomniac’s nightmare, opening with a groan of Twin Peaks-like guitar chords before the tale unravels thusly: “Well, it’s one in the morning and I can’t sleep at night/I hear wolves around the doorstep, they’re circling outside/I count ’em jumping over fences and landing on the sheets/Now it’s two in the morning and I can’t fall asleep.” If you’ve been itching to drop your tonearm onto one of Transistor Radio’s 16 jackpot tracks, here’s your chance, hi-fi worshipper.
So, I guess you could say wherever you see the name M. Ward appearing in any of his current (or future) guises, you should go check out what the boy’s been up to. Might be a good time here to borrow that friendly consumer warning from old pal Bob Dylan: You’d be crazy to miss it. Something like that.
—Jud Cost, 2014
Santa Clara, California