Portland rain hits heavy and hard. It is Pacific and wet. It is daylong and grey. It hurtles along street gutters and drips from conifers. The rain slips off wet-leaf steps and puddles alleyways. In Portland locals shelter in brewery pubs, sip on strong local beer, and drink coffee at Powell’s City of Books where the shelves are unusually mixed with both the used and glossy-new.
One rainy December night at the legendary Electric Ballroom I hear Modest Mouse, and afterwards step inside a record store to search collections for local vinyl. Record stores open late. Twelve years prior, accompanied by a fellow traveller, here I meet the native Dandy Warhols playing pool backstage at a Jet concert.
Rainy cities produce great musicians; but Portland’s best is Matthew Ward.
More Rain is M Ward’s first since the mesmerising Wasteland Companion of 2012. Most Ward albums should be hard to follow up, but he has continued to impress with the passing years of the century.
This record begins with the sound of heavy rain, which relaxes and absorbs. The title music segues into ‘Pirate Dial’, slow and acoustic with beautiful choruses. The vocal “I can hear you” is led by sombre glowing keys. Here, early on, is the album’s greatest moment.
Years with She & Him, alongside the talented Zooey Deschanel, are evident on this record more than in the past. Sixties guitars and melodies with suiting backing vocals are here. This is heard on the easy ‘I’m listening’ and on ‘You’re so good to me’, as well as ‘Little Baby’, itself a shining standout track.
Another stirring song, with Ohrwurm quality, is ‘Girl from Conejo Valley’, upbeat with that western rock ‘n roll M.Wardian twist that we now know well. Dipping in and out of distant megaphone vocals, and in between stylish electric space-riffs, there is mandolin. He tells us “my old girlfriend used to not to, but now writes for free” and sings in reflection “the girl from Conejo valley used to be mine”.
‘Slow Driving Man’ is calm and beautiful, with the exceptional guitars that we now love and expect.
On this record Ward is joined by REM’s Peter Buck, and Canadian k.d. lang. But their contribution is hard to discern. The album is Ward all over. Broadly speaking he adopts two styles: loud rock ‘n country-blues with screaming – always impressive – electric guitars; and serious, melodic, indie-folk. Both sounds are here on More Rain.
Approaching the album’s end ‘Temptation’ and ‘Phenomenon’ are quite weak – B-side quality – although again with beautiful guitar styling. But this is not enough. These songs are somehow incomplete, and do not stir the internal fire. ‘Time Won’t Wait’ is also forgettable, likely skipped after a first encounter. The record ends with blues-driven ‘I’m going higher’, which is predictable (albeit optimistic) and an odd choice for closing.
This is not to say that Ward is not great. He is. But More Rain does not compare with the melodic, atmospheric greatness more prominent on the last four records. Like each of his albums there are moments of beauty, creating wonderful soundscapes matched with poetic lyrics: ‘Pirate Dial’ and ‘Girl from Conejo Valley’. But the rest do not fire. Here we have no stylish ‘Sweethearts on Parade’, and we do not catch a tender ‘Wild Goose’. It is those songs which will write Ward’s legacy, not the current endeavor. They can’t all be hits.
But never let the rain cease. More Rain.