Matthew Stephen Ward‘s seventh studio album was recorded in eight different studios and boasts 18 guest musicians, including Rachel Cox (Oakley Hall), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes), Tom Hagerman (Devotchka), Tobey Leaman (Dr. Dog), and She & Him‘s X chromosome Zooey Deschanel, just to name a few. Such a heroic production itinerary should surely yield appropriately epic results, but Ward‘s Wasteland Companion feels as organic and understated as anything he’s done thus far. Most of the 12 songs flirt with ambient textures, but they remain firmly imbued with the breezy, tape-saturated patina that permeated early works like Transfiguration of Vincent and Transistor Radio. For the most part, outside of the slight but catchy “Primitive Girl” and the driving “Sweetheart,” he eschews many of the pop tics that colored 2009’s Hold Time for meandering, dustbowl folk arrangements (“Clean Slate”), galloping, country-gospel motifs (“Pure Joy”), and Tin Pan Alley nostalgia (“There’s a Key”). Ward‘s naturalistic approach and consistently retro vibe work best when he lands somewhere in the middle of it all, as is the case with the lush and timeless sounding “Wild Goose” and the bluesy title track, both of which appear in the album’s spare and satisfying second half. Fans who were wondering if Ward‘s mainstream successes would yield a stylistic sea change can rest easy, as his signature, sepia-tone demeanor, for better or for worse, remains steadfast.
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