M. WARD with MY MORNING JACKET and HAPPY CHICHESTER at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Friday (May 28), $20. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
M. Ward's voice sounds like an anachronism. When he sings, he's got a weary purr that cracks into a falsetto in all the right places, which infuses the similarly old-fashioned indie folk songs on last year's stunning Transfiguration Of Vincent (Merge) album with such potent emotion and soul, you feel like you're listening to remastered blues records from early in the 2oth century. That in-another-time quality comes through in his speaking voice, too. Between his soft, low-end drawl, protracted pauses between sentences, and the way he turns each idea over and over in his mind, I feel like I've phoned up one of those scratchy singers from Alan Lomax's old field recordings. Remind me what year it is?
"People say I sound timeless, which is nice," Ward chuckles from a Travelodge somewhere in Milwaukee, "but I don't feel like I can take too much credit for it, cuz I think it's mainly due to consuming older records.
"When I first started out making music in high school, my favourite bands were the Beatles and Sonic Youth, so I wanted to be able to play acoustic and electric guitar. Later on, as I got older, I discovered people like John Fahey and Elizabeth Cotten and thought it'd be cool to try and play the way those guys played. Listening and practising - it's the best school."
The Portland-based, California-bred singer/songwriter grew up in a household filled with songs - his dad was into Johnny Cash and gospel, his mom dug classical recordings - but credits punk rockers like Mike Watt with his career choice.
Punk rock, Ward offers, "seemed real to me. Not phony in any way, and you gravitate toward that when you're 16."
Though unable to explain why his tunes took the form of soaring folk-rock ballads and bluesy rags instead of hardcore bangers, he gets het up when we start talking about punk music. He's too sweet to name names but starts to laugh when he thinks about "what passes for punk these days."
"I can't see how you can be a punk musician if you're backed by, uh, Warner. The best music always comes from a grassroots level, and that's why it's a shame to see what's happening on MTV these days, cuz you don't really get that. Which of those bands has something honest to express? Usually the best songs come from the crappiest hotel rooms."
Ward's own songs defy genrefication, but that unflinching, often heartbreaking honesty is the common link. He'll take a pop nugget like Bowie's Let's Dance and completely gut it, transforming the overproduced dance anthem into a mournful, lurching blues requiem that's as haunting and spare as the original is glossy and 80s excessive.
The haunted quality shimmers throughout Transfiguration Of Vincent. The underlying sadness is partly due to the fact that the album serves as an elegy for a friend who passed away, says Ward.
"Music has the ability to let you have one foot in the present, one foot in the past and one foot in the future. It's about breaking down time and space, in a certain way.
"Space is really important as well, especially when I perform. I like being open to the surroundings in new ways, kinda like creating field recordings onstage. I played a theatre in Tucson that's set up right by the train tracks, and anyone who's played there can tell you there are bound to be train noises in at least one song. The same thing happened in Toronto when I played during a hockey game and there were shouts from the front of the club.
"It's like John Cage, that composer who had a song with no music in it. I love the idea of that. He imagined a world that could appreciate the noise of the people in the audience, and the idea of that was amusing enough for him to turn it into a song."