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M. Ward: Hold Time (Merge) 

It’s a tricky thing, dissecting M. Ward’s new album — it can’t possibly stack up against 2006’s Post-War, where every track felt like a classic. But Hold Time does show Ward expanding his production skills; the bustling girl-group sound here is thick with shivering keys, self-arranged strings, and other reverb-coated extras provided by several Portland regulars. Beyond that, his collaborators include She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel, and Lucinda Williams, who sings on the country standard “Oh Lonesome Me.” “To Save Me” even sneaks in whooshing keyboards and faint vocals from former Grandaddy leader Jason Lytle. The transformative slowdown of the Buddy Holly hit “Rave On” is akin to Ward’s tackling of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” years ago, while the instrumental outro invokes the Sinatra chestnut “I’m a Fool to Want You” with a painted-sunset Western vibe.

Hold Time is more ruminative than Post-War, with a palpable religious streak. “Blake’s View” paraphrases the famous poet (“Death is just a door … It’s just another room we enter/It’s the threshold that hurts”) while promising a reunion with loved ones “on the other side.” Thoughts of permanence are also at the heart of the stripped-bare “One Hundred Million Years”: “This love between you and I/Is older than the burning ball of fire up in the sky.” Old-soul songs so casually delivered wind up feeling both durable and disposable, which has become Ward’s greatest strength and weakness. — Doug Wallen

M. Ward performs on Thursday, March 5 at Palace of Fine Arts. 8 p.m., $29.50;
Thu., March 5, 8 p.m., 2009


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