Not many mainstream artists can claim to have written over three hundred and fifty songs this decade. This year alone the West Virginia musician Jason Ward has released two albums, two EPs and seven singles, yet he is far removed from the mainstream music industry and remains unsigned. He is Kurt Cobain if Nirvana had never happened. The world is full of people making music for themselves. A voice, a guitar, some words and a room is all you need these days to make a song. But very few are as talented as Jason Ward.
Almighty Row is just a small example of Jason Ward’s work, but as a complete album the songs share a similar mournful and ethereal sound. Ward’s vocals have a Thom Yorke quality but there is often more to his voice. The music treads a fine line between heartbreaking melancholy and soulless depression, the words complimented by a minimalist framework of acoustic guitars, strings and piano. This album is proof that less is more when you make the right choices.
The definitive highlight of Almighty Row is the haunting Sugarcoat, a perfect three minutes of captivating performance. Ward’s vocals are interchanged with a delicate and simple piano melody and the whole song is washed with a subtle string arrangement. It is probably the most ‘complete’ song on the album. Sinkhole is a close second with an achingly beautiful chorus: ‘Enjoy your sinkhole, make it your home. You raise your kids there and die alone…’. The trails and tribulations of ‘family life’ summed up.
Opener I’m Not In Trouble sets the uneasy scene from the outset, a tale of self-doubt and denial centred around the line: ‘I know it’s not me and I’m not in trouble, still think I may have done something wrong…’. It could be a small child facing a parent or a serial killer talking to the devil. Perfect abstract song writing. Bright continues the sinister feel, flat verses leading up to a melodic chorus: “…And I’ll be happy though it’s wrong. And I’ll be happy knowing you are where you belong”. The backing vocals by Ward himself are excellent.
Almighty Row often breaks the formula. Hinting At The Door is a slower piano-led piece using few words to first create the pictures: ‘She came down from Pennsylvania where the horses run. I came from the tributaries where the sun is spun’, then the personal touch: ‘She looked out the window once, at the empty field. When I asked her what she saw, she kept her thoughts concealed’. Sendoff could be a Rufus Wainwright closer. The combination of piano and Ward’s change of vocal style conjures images of a faded actor in a downbeat musical. Hope You Don’t Mind is similar with a startling vocal mix above a plodding piano. The choral strings provide backing vocals and the brief outro of deep electronica is over too quickly.
At just over half an hour, Almighty Row never feels too long. The pace of each song is measured and consistent but never laboured - a wonderful feat of control and production. Song after song you keep expecting Ward to suddenly start yelling or throw in a massive blast of industrial noise to release the tension and angst. It never happens. But on repeat listens you keep expecting it as the songs reveal more and more hidden depth and meaning. Given that Jason Ward has made so much music in the last ten years and his creative output has produced something as good as Almighty Row, it remains a mystery why he doesn’t have a record deal. Maybe he doesn’t want one. Maybe he is living the life that Kurt Cobain never had - making music out of the public spotlight and staying well in control.
-- CS (for Altsounds)