Think of Spring
I’ve been a fan of M. Ward’s music since I first heard him – and maybe it was his cover of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance that really hooked me in, but I remember loving the whole album, Ward’s originals were always high quality too. Here he covers Billie Holiday, making his own version, essentially, of her Lady in Satin album. That’s the penultimate album of her career, the last released in her lifetime in fact. And by that stage she’s busted almost beyond repair, her voice has transformed – it’s something else. It is not the same voice she had back when she invented modern jazz singing.
She’s augmented by a 40 piece orchestra, lush arrangements, great songs and her innate ability to live inside a song, to walk a straight path to the door where its emotional resonance lives and firmly ring that bell. So Lady in Satin is – of course – a classic.
Here Ward takes the songs apart and sketches them out hunched over a parlour guitar, many of the songs here recorded on a Tascam 4-track. There are alternate tunings and his own hushed voice – like the Tom Waits that never smoked 40 a day while watching old tapes of Beefheart and/or drinking Beefeater.
Ward’s always had this way with a cover version – he campfires it, he gives us the song in a way that can make us feel not so much that he wrote it but certainly it’s in line with how he presents the songs he’s made. It’s about the tune always, rather than what he’s doing to it – this is no ego trip, no clever-clogs makeover; it’s not even a calculated look under the hood of the song to see how it ticks. It’s just a man with a guitar and a voice putting them to use.
These are songs you know – standards, and some are better known than others, all have travelled well but some have travelled further than others. All of them sound, here, as if they are Matt Ward songs. Material from his repertoire. Which is what they are now. But in no way is he trying to make you forget about the originals – or any of the other cover versions. He’s not saying his are better or in any way definitive, they’re just something he can do; songs he feels like singing. Songs he believes in.
I’ve always felt like that’s been at the heart of any M. Ward performance or album – a batch of songs he believes in. So that can me a mix of covers and originals, or here it’s an (off-beat) tribute to Billie Holiday.
It might work to turn some people (Ward fans) to the Holiday versions. It might work for some people (Holiday fans) that know the jazz standards and are interested to hear them in folksy clothes.
As a fan of both artists I’m in something close to musical heaven. This album has been on in my house for days in a row. It’s a short, lovely set of songs (reworked, re-ordered). If I give it a break, it’s to listen to some of Billie’s versions, or to return to the many documentary portraits of Holiday (I’m fascinated by everything about her). I’m also fascinated by M. Ward’s understated way with a cover version. His guitar winds and winds its way around the melody, he scratches softly at the strings and seems to coax from them rhythm, harmony and melody all at once – check out his rendition of It’s Easy To Remember for instant proof of this. Hear You’ve Changed in this new arrangement (it’s changed!) and marvel at the way he takes that John Fahey way of reconfiguring a song’s bones, here he marries that to his own version of torch singing. It, too, is underrated. Ward’s voice knows intuitively how to caress a lyric. He’s whispering inside of the original.
There’s nothing to not love here. This is my new favourite album of 2020. Songs I’ve loved for years in so many versions, not just Billie’s – I’m talking But Beautiful, I’m A Fool To Want You, I’ll Be Around and You Don’t Know What Love Is – suddenly feel brand new again. Like when they stopped me in my tracks the first, second and third times that I heard them. They’ve been part of my life’s journey for so many years. I’m suddenly given a new way to look at them, to listen to them and understand them.
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