“Unique” is an abused word. It’s not quite in the same red headed stepchild territory that “like” and “literally” occupy (full disclosure — I’m doing some serious glass-house stone throwing right now, being both a card-carrying abuser of “like” and “literally” AND a red head), but “unique” finds itself being used to describe music far too often by my count, and I generally try to steer clear of it. But after seeing M. Ward perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. two Sundays ago, I can’t help believing that he stands apart from the rest of the musical landscape in ways that feel totally deserving of the word. Two of these ways were espcially striking…
This first is Ward’s voice, which has a texture that feels both smooth and rough at the same time, as well as a softness that mitigates the weight of the lower register he frequents. It’s an unforgeable signature — remarkable on its own — but it’s even more remarkable when you place it next to one or more other voices. It took seeing him in person to realize how effectively he sings lead from the back of a vocal mix. Even as bright backing vocals jumped in to round out choruses with ear-pleasing harmonies, Ward’s voice, quieter, with a characteristic rasp, commanded the melody. This type of leadership just oozes confidence; the kind of confidence that makes the person standing next to you lean in and declare, mid-song, “He’s just so cool” (emphasis not mine — she really did say “cool” in verbal italics, I swear). And to be perfectly honest, I’d just had the exact same thought.
The other thing that stood out during Ward’s performance at the 9:30 Club (a quality I’ve admired for a while from afar/YouTube) was his style of playing the guitar. The hollow-bodied electric Ward played for most of the show sounded a bit like a tiny ensemble, his left hand building lead lines around arrangements of tones instead of single notes, his right hand coaxing every ounce of personality out of his instrument with a expressive finger-picking style often reserved for acoustic guitars. There is a great deal of color and vigor to this style — so much of both that it can feel a bit like he’s fighting his instrument, asking it to be more than just 6 strings working in conjunction with 10 fingers, like when coaches beg their teams to be more than the sum of their parts. What results is every bit as impressive, but so much more expressive, than a lead guitar player plowing through a series of single 1/64 notes in some crazy, lightning-fast solo.
OK, so his voice is unique, his guitar style is unique… you know what’s not unique? Me in my new M. Ward t-shirt. That’s because my friend Coyle and I ended up buying the same shirt in the same color and the same size from the merch stand after the show. I know. How could this atrocity happen? Well, let the record read that I got to the counter first and instantaneously formed a meaningful and irreversible emotional bond with this shirt. For reasons too convoluted to explain here, the graphic on the front reminded me of the musical experience I’d just had, and the shirt easily passed the “Should I really be spending money on this during a vinyl spending freeze?” test. But as I waited for my turn to make a purchase (the merch vendor was working side-to-side like a bartender does), Coyle swooped in on the other side of the counter and made his first. I was devastated. But just as I was about to slink away feeling defeated and distraught, a wave of defiance welled up inside me and, with a scorn for convention not seen since Lady Sybil Crawley donned a pair of Turkish pantaloons on Downton Abbey, I bought that shit anyway. I also made a beeline for the bathroom when we got back to Coyle’s Clarendon apartment so I could be the first to put it on. As a side note, I’m almost 30 years old.
Coyle and I may look decidedly un-unique when standing next to one another (Can you feel my contempt in this staged photo?), but it makes me smile to think of how my embattled shirt will serve as an ironic reminder of the night M. Ward’s stunning uniqueness came into focus for me. Listen below to two of the tunes M. Ward played at the 9:30 Club from his most recent album, A Wasteland Companion, including “Me And My Shadow,” a song that pushes the irony of this whole situation to a level I can’t even discuss without my head exploding.