This morning Max and I took Zazu on a quick walk around the block in Max’s South Berkeley neighborhood. The cars on the street were shiny with sunlight and dripped condensation like rain gutters. Water evaporated from everything; I could see my breath in the shade of the Magnolia tree out back, and the dog’s nose dug deep into wet and overgrown clusters of vibrantly new green grass lining the sidewalks. It’s been raining a lot here lately, unusually so, and today the morning sun felt like an old friend, just back from travels, whom you find sitting in the kitchen when you come home work as thought they’d been there the whole time. The friend who stops by and says, hey, I don’t have to give the car back for another week. Let’s go somewhere. Hit the road. It’s sunny out there.
While the dog ran up and down smelling all the clean smells the rain had washed in, Max and I passed the blocks in semi-silence talking about whatever a couple talks about while they’re walking the dog in the morning before work still holding their coffee mugs in their hands. It was not until after I’d dropped Max off at work and was entering the dark of the train station that the sun and the crisp air and the oncoming Springtime hit me fully and I thought, Yes! A road trip! Go somewhere! Have something to see coming around the bend on a Monday morning when the dark earth is already flooded to pieces, when the day heralds indoor work and catch-ups and schedule deficits but instead you get to think about heading off on a whim for the weekend. Anywhere, let’s just go. Let’s just drive somewhere.
In California, where driving equals freedom, people say there are no seasons. But those of us who are from here can taste them in sly shades of distinct flavors, like a subtle hint of lavender in rain, like jasmine when it’s still dark out in the mornings when you wake. To me, as I said to Max today, “it smells like Santa Cruz.” What this means is that to me, Spring in California smells like the air outside is new to this land. Barreled in over oceans or down through mountains, newly freed by wind from blankets of clouds, this air and its “smell” is to me the sensation of seasons changing in a place where you have to pay attention in order to catch them. The seasonal transition here is quieter than in colder places, where entire cities and regions scream with operatic explosion and one day, usually after protracted anticipation, the flowers are all instantly bloomed and the people all unexpectedly bare-skinned. Here, it’s more like noticing on a morning walk one solitary California poppy, already tapped out and wilting from two or three days of glorious life which you failed earlier to witness. Seasons happen here in incremental degrees, but one degree will tip the balance decisively one day, late in March, and then it’s lamb time. Roll around in it. Let’s jump in the car and drive south til we stop. As the M. Ward song says:
Here comes the sun again.
is from lived and went to college in San Luis Obispo, California, but for many years has made his home in Portland, Oregon. To me, he was mostly “James and Kate and Steph’s friend Matt”– a nice, quiet guy, an acknowledged brilliant musician among a group of many talented friends. Then after a bit, he was one of those nice musician guys you kinda know who has a record label but still sells his CDs on consignment at the record store, and you like his record and play it in the store to try and get customers to buy it. On the periphery of knowing this person, one could see and sense him around Portland, being a musician, living his life, and growing his career in degrees, quietly and humbly but steadily. Not unlike a lot of people you know. And then one day the scale tipped and he was on Letterman. Huge.
It happens, sometimes to the best of people.
All Ward’s friends are brilliant, too. They all have various bands, small businesses, and artistic endeavors. Some of them used to work together at the Cal Poly radio station and a bunch used to play in math rock and punk bands. They generally remain a group of tight-knit, creative friends, many of whom moved from San Luis to Portland sometime in the 90s after college and still collaborate on projects into adulthood. All this time, “M. Ward” has been in there, somewhere, steadily been making beautiful music that is universally likable, mysteriously referential, and yet wholly unique. Genuine.
When it came out, Transistor Radio (full-length title: The M. Ward Presents: Transistor Radio, Memories of a Utopian Radio Power) was not Ward’s best-reviewed album; I recall a lot of fans at the time saying they were a bit disappointed in it after the powerhouse of The Transfiguration of Vincent. Well, I wasn’t one of them. Having recently relocated to San Francisco from Portland, I ran right out to Amoeba and bought this on vinyl because I felt it belonged there. (In truth it probably belongs on 78-rpm thick Victrola-style wax, but this will do.) Also because John King’s beautiful artwork merits a larger canvas than a jewel box.
This record is contained within a box-like sonic soundscape, as is the object its title suggests. It’s a vintage-inspired effort made by radio kids for radio kids: analog recordings, real instruments, simple effects, and a murky, faraway production quality all feel as though every song is winding its way through old speakers and many generations of influence to your ears. It’s a quiet record, even though it sounds really good loud.
The album kicks off with a word-free intro, an almost unrecognizable guitar cover of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me.” Fading in and out, Matt’s swirls of acoustic fingerpicking soundtracks what it looks like out the window of your car when you’re at the beginning of your spontaneous road trip but you are still in your neighborhood, driving by the gas station and deciding not to stop yet, not ‘til you get out of town.
Then you’re in it. It feels like, instead of the music being piped in through the airwaves, the listener is piped into the songs that follow – the radio songs – via an old timey, lady voice-backed missive to all the people underground, listening to the sound of all the living people living their lives away.
There’s an easy sloping quality that characterizes a lot of Ward’s music—layered, fingerpicked, and strummed guitar (seeing Ward play any of his many instrumental “variations” and “transfigurations” live is a uniquely awe-striking and Fahey-invoking experience) with high background echoes of analog instruments I can’t even really identify. I would imagine some of these sound-makers belong to Adam Selzer, Ward’s long time friend, sometime bandmate, and engineer. They pair perfectly with the small-voiced melodies of Ward’s trademark gravelly whisper. Here lies old-timey ambiance in abundance, yes, but listen to the words and a thoroughly modern narrative transpires. Matt is just playing his songs, his way, and they speak not of sock hops or juke joints but of missed connections and nights on the road and time going by and relationships, both between people and between the things and situations we people have made.
Let me turn the volume up, get a little bit of that hi-fi sound going in here, between the sun shaped like Venetian blind slats on the living room floor. I listen close, past the vintagey sounds, and Matt the guy who used to be in rock bands is still here, still writing good songs. “Hi Fi” is a voicing not of nostalgia for musical eras gone by, but a lusty balland to turning it the fuck up:
Why burn your bridges if you can blow your bridges up?
I’m gonna give it to you
(If you let me give it to you)
Look, there, walking down the street in a blur as you drive by in your borrowed car: it’s the perfect Indie Rock Guy of your dreams, before indie rock guys became social-power wielding chauvinists, whispering in your ear from the backseat, Hey hey. I’m gonna give it you, baby. (You know, if you consent to me giving it to you. Because I can be strong and sexy and not-an-asshole at the same time.)
Now that’s a sensitive way to be totally rock-and-roll.
Really. I mean it. This is sensitive rock and roll here, where sensitive is not some antiquated macho denotation of lacking “balls” but instead signifies what the word actually means: the ability to sense. A reflection on sensation, a delicate consitution that sees and notices and feels what surrounds it. An observer, just passing through. Sensitive is the way you see and comment on what happens out your car window after you clear that corner gas station and hit the open road. Throw away the map, make the next turn. More than a “bygone era” album, Transistor Radio is a road album, for the listener and the maker.
Every town is all the same / when you’ve left your heart in the Portland rain.
Substitute California Sun, New York steam rushing out of subway grates, or whatever nouns you most identify with “home.” Point is: you’re not there right now. Nostalgia drips off the hood of the car in the morning. Keep driving.
While listening to this record, my “favorite” songs keep peeking out from every other track, demanding to be replayed. In that sense it’s interesting that this album is both such an album—united into a cohesive work by a threaded, whole sound and concept—and an experience of anticipating and enthusing over some of “my favorite songs.” Because try as I might to listen actively all the way through, I always end up waiting for my favorites on the album while the perfectly good songs that just happen to not be my favorites provide a lovely muzak-y ambiance in the meantime (if muzak was really fucking good, that is).
The instant-classic track that inspired me to listen to this album this morning is “Here Comes the Sun Again.” This is one of those songs that feels like a cover. Haven’t I heard this before? Isn’t this, like, a classic or something, even to the point it might be overplayed? But it’s not. It’s just that good.
Kingdoms and queens they all bow down to you/ Branches and ranch hands are boughing too
and I’m taking off my straw hat for you singin’/ here comes the sun again.
Another favorite: “I’ll be your bird,” one of the more truly intimate voicings, musically and vocally, of a love song that I’ve heard in a long, long time. This is the kind of love song to take you into itself without irony, without commentary, right on back to lying on a couch in a puppy-love pile, in silence, staring, starting it all off and knowing it’s going to be good.
Slide inside Sandy River all you want, Matt. To me, you’re still California at the cusp of Spring.