M. Ward knows how to live with rain. Having spent the last decade-and-a-half based in the perennially damp Portland, Oregon, the singer-songwriter and producer has learned how to shine through the soggy gloom by simply embracing its inevitability. For Ward, there is inspiration in a dark sky and harmony in foreboding winds. And with his new album More Rain, he has made a true gotta-stay-indoors, rainy-season record that looks upwards through the weather while reflecting on his past.
“I think one of the biggest mysteries of America right now is this: How are we able to process unending bad news on Page One and then go about our lives the way the style section portrays us?” says Ward. “There must be a place in our brains that allows us to take a bird’s-eye view of humanity, and I think music is good at helping people—myself included—go to that place.”
This album, Ward’s eighth solo affair, finds the artist picking up the tempo and volume a bit from his previous release, 2012’s A Wasteland Companion. Where that record introspectively looked in from the outside, More Rain finds Ward on the inside, gazing out. Begun four years ago and imagined initially as a DIY doo-wop album that would feature Ward experimenting with layering his own voice, it soon branched out in different directions, a move that he credits largely to his collaborators here who include R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Neko Case, k.d. lang, The Secret Sisters, and Joey Spampinato of NRBQ. The result is a collection of upbeat, sonically ambitious yet canonically familiar songs that both propel Ward’s reach and satisfy longtime fans.
More Rain begins with an actual rainstorm, then throughout the album, guitars chime, chug, and riff with Ward’s unmistakable earthy tone, while layers of atmospheric reverb and skittering drums climb and clip in equal measures. As the cloud of noise rolls in, the layers part ever so slightly to make way for Ward’s voice, which can play wispy and whimsical in one moment (“Pirate Dial”) or crackling and smoky in the next (“Time Won’t Wait”) just as well as it can climb to clear-sky clarity (“Confession”) then drop down to smooth, soulful crooning (“I’m Listening”), each one after the other. “Girl From Conejo Valley” is a nostalgic trot through people he used to know and a place he used to be, and “Slow Driving Man” is sweeping and lush in its orchestral climb towards confident heights.
As the album ends with the self-assured swing of “I’m Going Higher,” voices join together in a chorus of rising “ah”s and, for just a second, it seems the storm outside has slowed, making room for a ray of hopeful sunlight. As Ward knows, the rainy season is sure to return, but for now, More Rain is here to help us with our perspective.
With opening support from Whispertown:
Whispertown is the indie project of Morgan Nagler from Los Angeles, California, formerly known as The Whispertown 2000. They have toured with several prominent indie artists in the past few years, including Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis, The Breeders, She & Him, Maria Taylor, Johnathan Rice, Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s and The Elected.
There’s a buzz about this LA quartet, whose mainstay, aspiring actress Morgan Nagler, numbers celebrity admirers like Conor Oberst. Their lo-fi indie rock comes laced with antique country flavours and front-porch harmonies, a mix that gels to quirky appeal on, say, “Pushing Oars”, but unravels into faux-naive caterwauling elsewhere – “No Dope” is one offender. Nagler can certainly write a song – opener “103” is a droll comment on aging and “Atlantis” yearns for a state of grace to a simple, stately piano – but a touch more rigour wouldn’t undermine her authenticity. Country stars Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, whose label signed the band, should know that.