Re-releasing a neglected album makes it nearly impossible to hear it on its terms, particularly if the artist has attained the level of success M. Ward has in recent years. At best, we get a piquant glimpse into the raw talent tempered in their later work. At worst, we get cutesy nostalgia masquerading as musical scholarship. Some lost recordings are simply better left in the blistered hands of record collectors. Duet for Guitars #2, M. Ward’s first record, falls somewhere toward the former extreme. Although it has its flaws, they never make the album seem unworthy of a second — or in this case, a third — listen.
Duet first saw release in 1999 through Co-Dependent Records. Ward’s buddy Howe Gelb re-released it the next year on his Ow-Om label, but the album, unlike Ward’s career, has lain dormant and out-of-print ever since. Now Ward’s current paymaster, Merge Records, is giving Duet a third go-round, offering the record to Ward’s fans bolstered by bonus tracks and re-mastering.
Hearing Duet a year after Ward’s fifth long-player, the phenomenal Post-War, is sobering. The latter effortlessly matched Ward’s penchant for early-American pop and folk with his deliciously listless vocal style. Its sharp compositions and tight arrangements neatly summed up Ward’s talents and obsessions.
Duet, on the other hand, feels more like a series of meandering first drafts — skeletons of songs Ward would perfect on the next album, or the next, or the next. But here, Ward doesn’t have quite the voice or the guitar chops to warrant the level of intimacy. On the bleak “Good News,” he takes fifteen measures to wander his way through, “When I forget how to cry I see you alone at night/ My heart explodes in light and sky and I want to close my eyes.” With just a few acoustic-guitar chords and a scattered harmony to back him up, Wards loses his listeners before the fifth measure.
Generally, though, he’s able to keep his amateurisms quaint and endearing rather than tired and embarrassing. “Look Me Over” is fast and free — Ward’s slurred voice running drunkenly into the surf guitar buzzing in the corner and the basement trap kit crackling overhead. It’s a folksy Pavement and all the better for it. Even Duet‘s bonus tracks don’t seem superfluous. On “Not a Gang,” you can hear Ward fingering his way around the open tunings he’d master on the spacier moments of 2005’s Transistor Radio. It’s here that Duet proves itself more than just a between-album marketing strategy.
As a guitar-player, as a singer, as a songwriter — as an artist — Ward’s back-catalog deserves attention. The fact that Duet doesn’t always deserve it isn’t necessarily the point; it’s that we know how far he’s come.