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Past as prologue

On his new album, M. Ward looks backward for insight

It's probably safe to describe Matt Ward as an old-school performer. Though it's a rather nebulous appellation, it works for Ward, both on record and onstage.

The 29-year-old singer-songwriter has a voice that sounds positively creaky with age. One imagines his songs welling up from Granny's hand-cranked Victrola in the parlor right after a Scripture reading and just before tea is poured.

'I feel like I'm a pretty inquisitive guy, for better or for worse,' Ward says. 'I look backward for insight, and I guess that means old books and old art and especially old music. The approach toward record production in Louis Armstrong's era is something to be held as an ideal.

'I feel like the only things that are going to last are things in the distant past.'

As a performing artist, the Portland-based Ward goes by the handle M. Ward. In conversation, he's a slow talker who thinks about each word very carefully. 'I'm kind of stuck in the slow lane, in general,' he says. 'I take some comfort in seeing everything move fast around me. I'm comfortable being a fly on the wall a lot of the time.'

Ward's latest album, 'Transfiguration of Vincent,' more than lives up to the standard of excellence he established on his previous record, 'End of Amnesia.' On songs such as 'Undertaker,' 'Sad, Sad Song' and 'Vincent O'Brien,' Ward sings in a dusty old voice about love lost, repairing the holes in one's life and turning negatives into positives. Some liken him to a more tradition-minded Tom Waits Ñ but a weather-beaten, American version of Nick Drake isn't too far off, either.

Ward says the idea for the new record sprang from an unlikely source: 'The inspiration É was given to me by a performer at the memorial service for John Fahey (a legendary guitar player and musical historian who died in Salem two years ago).

'There were a lot of speakers, family and friends,' Ward says. 'There were also some musicians who played his songs. Someone played a harmonica piece that in my mind was the most powerful statement. Somehow it told the whole story, the joy and the sadness, in a three-minute instrumental. That was the first time that I'd heard live music at a memorial service, and I never knew music had that kind of power.

'That experience made me think about a lot of things,' he continues. 'The power that music has is sublime, but the scope of music that you hear on the radio is so narrow that it makes me think that I can give it a shot and at least try to attain this power for myself, even for a short time. I want to see what will happen, even knowing full well I'll fall short.'

Potential listeners needn't worry that Ward's record is a blatant gloom trip. Though he maintains a sorrowful edge to his voice, Ward is a songwriter and composer fascinated by many things. The album features some gorgeous Tex-Mex instrumentals and even a whispery version of David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' that does exactly what a good cover tune should: It opens the song to new ideas and gives it a wonderful new shape. Ward sings this venerable pop ditty as if he's trying to persuade a reluctant lover to get out of bed at 3 a.m. and step outside for something reckless Ñ maybe even a complete change of life.

In the end, Ward understands that there's no limit to the number of emotions and ideas that should go into the process of making music, and he does his best to keep up with as many of them as possible.

'I don't ever want to lose the feeling I had when I first picked up the guitar,' he says. 'It's a mysterious sea of frets and dots and strings, and you don't know the names of the notes or the progressions or anything. Keeping that sense of mystery and error and chaos alive in all facets of record production is something that I am amused by.'

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