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Merging into maturity 

Three Merge bands meet at the Cat's Cradle

Stories about maturity hold all the appeal of a finger-wagging lecture on "growing up," "acting like an adult" and "pulling your head out of your ass."

But when it comes to the M. Ward/ Lambchop/ Portastatic triple-bill at the Cat's Cradle this Tuesday--essentially, a mini Merge Records festival--maturity is practically a gig-defining trait.

There is, for instance, Ward's ongoing musical maturation, as evidenced on his new rave-magnet record, Post-War. Or, how about the love songs for adults made by Kurt Wagner's Lambchop, as featured on the band's latest, Damaged? Finally, Be Still Please, the latest from Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan as Portastatic, sees youthful optimism stripped away by political miasma. In the right hands, maturity is anything but a banal concept.

click to enlarge C'mon, M., leave your ear on.
  • C'mon, M., leave your ear on.

Of course, the youngest of the three, Ward--a 32-year-old songwriter from Portland, Ore.--sounds like he's been ripening on the musical vine since the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st. He's evolved from a little-known solo troubadour--whose 2000 debut Duets for Guitars #2 was released on Howe Gelb's tiny boutique label, Ow Om--into a favorite of trans-Atlantic music glossies. He shared a slot on the 2004 Monsters of Folk tour with pals Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and recently made his network television debut on the Late Show with David Letterman.

"That was surreal," Ward says. "It's an alternate reality that you step into for a moment, but it was really fun."

You can say the same for Ward's music: He funnels Delta blues, Dixie shuffles, Tin Pan Alley ballads and Appalachian folk through antiquated production techniques and a contemporary indie rock aesthetic to create an addictive hybrid. His records would sound as natural coming from a hand-cranked Victrola as they would from your iPod. It didn't seem possible that Ward could improve on 2005's Transistor Radio, a paean to the eclecticism of pre-Clear Channel FM radio, but Post-War finds Ward growing seamlessly into a full-band format.

"I wanted the overall sounds to go against those on Transistor Radio," he says. "I wanted something more grounded, more solid."

To nail Post-War down, Ward makes striking use of two drummers: Norfolk & Western's Rachel Blumberg and ex-Thermal Jordan Hudson, and the thunderous percussion they make adds palpable heft to Post-War's rockers. He also relies less on his exemplary John Fahey-inspired finger-picking skills, and adds more keys, fuzzy guitars and a Spector-ish wall of sound to the record. He varies the pace with a handful of wistful ballads for ballast, and gets some nice vocal accompaniment from Neko Case and James. If Post-War sounds like it takes its cues from the masterpieces that came out of Sun Studio's heyday in the '50s--well, that's the era Ward was shooting for.

"We spent a lot of time in the studio listening to records that were made after World War II," says Ward, who eschewed the road for a year while producing Jenny Lewis' debut away from Rilo Kiley and the John Fahey tribute I Am the Resurrection, as well as recording Post-War. "I love the sense of joy that comes across in the music from the middle part of the last century, and the idea that the spirit of these songs may have been inspired by the catastrophes that happened before. Younger people are seeing the title as relating more to the war we're in right now, and that was part of the inspiration as well."

click to enlarge He rues your sunny day: Lambchop's Kurt Wagner
  • He rues your sunny day: Lambchop's Kurt Wagner

Kurt Wagner, 46, writes about wars of an entirely different sort: the intimate, hand-to-hand emotional combat waged between--or within--people. Lambchop's ninth, Damaged, is another chronicle of hard time done in the wringer of human relationships. But Wagner admits that a recent bout with cancer "cast a long shadow" over the record, letting Damaged take on even more shadings than the typical Lambchop effort.

But these aren't simple tear-in-your-beer country weepers. Wagner and his amorphous band, which ranges from six to 20 players, craft thoughtful vignettes, like Raymond Carver stories put to gentle, piano-and-pedal steel country or understated Memphis soul. Wagner builds his narratives around arresting images, illustrating the joy, fear, freighted silences and unsettling boredom of any relationship worth its weight. It's an unapologetic reaction to an otherwise simplistic, self-help world.

"I'm not saying that I'm a wise old fucker or anything like that," Wagner says, "but little stuff takes on more meaning after some ridiculous adult situation has occurred in your life. Suddenly that cigarette butt on the curb can become really significant. It has to do with your perception, where you're at as a person, as a writer, even as a listener. Those things aren't always evident in a lot of younger compositions."

For Wagner, growing old is no excuse for sitting still. Each Lambchop release is also about musical evolution, though the records maintain their fundamental Wagnerian character. For Damaged, Wagner brought on board the experimental electronic Nashville duo Hands Off Cuba, who collaborated with him on last year's Co-Lab EP. Wagner was impressed enough to bring them into the fold along with a string trio for Damaged. Not surprisingly, the electronic touches are subtle, befitting the Lambchop aesthetic.

"They're young but seem to have this maturity about the way they approach making music that was very similar to all the people who work in Lambchop," Wagner says. "In any long, ongoing situation like this, it doesn't hurt to infuse it with some fresh ideas."

click to enlarge Not happy these days: Portastatic's Mac McCaughan
  • Not happy these days: Portastatic's Mac McCaughan

Mac McCaughan had some new musical ideas as well, courtesy of Portastatic's recently released score for the independent film Who Loves the Sun? Incorporating elements of the orchestral instrumentation from the score and 2005's Bright Ideas, McCaughan shows a surer arranging hand on Be Still Please, blending strings and woodwinds with his trademark guitar-rich pop. It's Portastatic's most lush record yet. Songs like "I'm in Love (with Arthur Dove)" are 24-karat pop gems recalling classic "Driveway to Driveway" Superchunk, while the country-tinged "Getting Saved" and bossa nova "Sweetness and Light" provide bright contrast.

But all that pretty music belies a sinister sense of disillusion that McGaughan works out in some of his most indignant lyrics to date: "Fear is cultured like a pearl/ In the black heart of this world," he sings, adding later on "You Blanks" a blistering Bush attack: "All my songs used to end the same way/ Everything's going to be OK/ You fuckers make that impossible to say."

"A lot of this record," McCaughan says, "ends up being about how you grow up with one view of the world, a feeling of invincibility when you're young and a built-in optimism of sorts, all of which slowly leeches away as you learn how things actually work."

But, like his mates on Merge, McCaughan fights back the best way he knows how--in song. And, if there's a moral to this tale about growing older and hopefully wiser, it's that all the shit in the world--war, cancer, aging--can't touch you, if only for a moment, when you're lost in the music.

M. Ward, Lambchop (with the Tosca String Quartet) and Portastatic play Cat's Cradle on Tuesday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $14. Post-War and Damaged are out now. See for more.


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