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++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005 = The Stooges Unearthed (Again)

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Monday, August 15, 2005 = The Empire Blues

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 = David Howie's Sónar Diary

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

+ Dreaming With M Ward

By Mark Mordue

+ Sydney, Australia — So I ask what magic is, and the roof above has lights like long red teardrops hanging from it, splashing down stars into the green curve of my beer bottle as I think it over. Magic is light in the night, I say to myself as I look at the stars in the glass and spin them round and round. Like real stars when they come down to you from the real night sky, and the truth is they died a long time ago, but they're still shining, sending out messages in long waves from the times of Christ and Rembrandt and Keats and cowboys and Robert Johnson and way before them all and us.

On stage M Ward is starting his strum and all of a sudden we're deep inside Bowie's "Let's Dance" — he's playing it so slow, so spooky, it's like this poem to a dying thing, not just a love, but what feels like the end of the world.

As it finally passes into silence, people turn to each other and nod. "That's the best version of that song I have ever heard."

+ Ward's cap is over his face, typically hiding it. He has a few hieroglyphic moves, some contrary tendencies, like someone half entertaining and sidestepping us at once: the vaguely arrogant politeness of an early Dylan, and a similarly withdrawn quality that goes well with such a big comparison.

It could be The Gaslight, New York, 1961, here, now, tonight. But it's Newtown RSL, or @Newtown (sic) in Sydney, 2004. Ward knows the dates, both of them. He's like some bridge in our minds.

Pursuing such greatness is not easy — and as Ward swaps between acoustic guitar and piano there are moments when the night submerges between his dream of history and some big sleep that can't be conquered. When you just want him to turn the flame on a little brighter. It's when I see how much of a purist he is, dead set on his path.

Before you know it, though, as he seems to slip and nod, some enchantment or other is suddenly upon you again. "Helicopter": the surreal tale of a man escaping through a hole in a wall, a child in his arms. "Going to Carolina," which could be about a two-timer getting his comeuppance or a Rimbaud of the American road trying to decide where to call home. "Outta My Head," Ward's own near-hit song, which comes on so sweet and smooth you never want it to stop. "Story of an Artist," by the American songwriter Daniel Johnston (to whom Ward pays great tribute), a kooked-out and funny-but-broken song about what it means to live creatively. And "What a Wonderful World," the title lines so precious and ghosted by Louis Armstrong's greatness Ward doesn't sing them — he just goes quiet and gives us the melody like someone or something has passed away but might come back one day (he prefaces it by talking about how hard it is to stay optimistic in America right now, and then says, "This might possibly be the greatest song ever written").

There's plenty more: a song where he wants to be a bird; another about a friend who could make his guitar string buzz like it was 1989; notes on Ward's own guitar that literally run and always make me think of Nick Drake; strokes where it sounds like his thumb has hit a bad place, shaking us from the wooden, shivering fret, back from some acoustic trance into consciousness. Then the piano that goes all dark and silvery when he touches it, delicately, hesitating, like his thinking his own songs over as his plays them; then an old-style rag feeling when he gallops and rolls across the keys like the saloon is calling "time, ladies and gentlemen, time please!"

+ And yet in the end this is not a great night for M Ward. No. He's too slow, too thick in the honey of his own mysterious history: the cracking voices and whispers, the hoarse-but-private confidences and their drowsy wit that colors everything he does in shades of blue and smoky reds. But then Ward's chasing greatness, and greatness doesn't always come when you call. All of which still makes him the most marvelous company on a cool summer's night in Sydney when the world is not so right and getting wronger and Matthew Ward is your strange little radio star dreaming of another time.

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