Jim Ward is quickly becoming one of music’s most fascinating and prolific characters, launching his career with now-defunct but seminal hardcore punk outfit At The Drive-In, a group that never foreshadowed the creative paths ahead of him when he founded it at just 17 years-old. And that was exactly the problem–as Ward himself would complain years later, he always felt like he was 17 in that band, even when he was 25 (join the club, dude.) But when Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos wasted no time devising plans for a new group just as Big Hair Cedric snapped his fingers and had another band–The Mars Volta–to gig with, they knew who to call: Jim Ward, who promptly became the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
Tony & Paul: Dude, can you please join our new band? Because, like, without you, we don’t have a band. DUUUDE!
Jim Ward: Um, OK–I’ll play lead guitar, and lead vocals, and lead songwriter, and you will KNOW MY NAME IS THE LORD, WHEN I LAY MY VENEGANCE. . .
Alright, alright. So maybe he didn’t go all Pulp Fiction on their asses, but, just like that, Paul and Tony found their leader in Jim Ward–a wise choice, as time increasingly proves. Part of the reason Jim Ward is becoming such a visible leader–not only in the bands he plays with but in the industry as a whole–is that, like some of the greatest rockers we have ever known (Neil Young, Bob Dylan), he looks away from no creative urge and never confines himself to a sound he thinks others desire (And anyway, the guy willingly admits that Billy Joel is an influence on his songwriting–the kind of thing you only say in public if you’ve got a brass set of moose balls on you.) Sparta’s debut LP Wiretap Scars made few friends among the hardcore punk community, most of which anticipated that Ward’s new project would deliver a sort of musical sequel to At the Drive-In. But Ward persisted undeterred, indulging his vision of a more theatrical sound–a soaring, massive and anthemic rock–following it wherever it may lead, even if it led him right down the clogged drain of rock ‘n roll dreams.
Their debut LP and its follow-up, Porcelain, delivered a ceaseless rush of intensity that demonstrated a yearning for melody no At the Drive-In song ever dared to dream of, but it wasn’t until 2006’s brilliant Threes that Sparta found a focus that helped them discover a voice of their own. And that, of course, is when it all went to shit–at least for a while. In 2005, not long before the release of Threes, the death Jim Ward’s cousin, Jeremy Ward, from a heroin overdose in 2003 caught up with him in full force. “I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with that,” Ward would say as people speculated that tracks like Porcelain’s “Death in the Family” were reflections on this terrible loss–one that, by Ward’s own account, promises to haunt him for perhaps the rest of his life.
He pulled the band off the road in mid-tour–one thing about rock ‘n roll is that its obligations tend not to take a back seat to grief–and embarked instead on a tour of his own soul: a two-month-long retreat during which he spoke to no one involved with his life in music. “I walked out in the middle of a tour…. I needed to get away from everything and everyone. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all, and I didn’t feel my life or the band was where I wanted it to be… I needed to step back and reassess everything” he would later explain. The strength of Threes–the album that resulted from this personal tumult–is either surprising or makes perfect sense, depending on your perspective. One thing that’s not in the eye of the beholder, though, is the genius of what came next: an alt-country side project called Sleepercar and their fantastic debut LP, West Texas.
Sleepercar: “A Broken Promise,” West Texas (2008)
If hardcore punkers who, since At The Drive-In’s inception in 1993, have preferred not to grow up since then were surprised at the comparatively more friendly sound of Sparta, then they’ll be downright despondent over Sleepercar, with its peculiar brand of indie pop and vague hankering for country. Even if an album title like West Texas is about as instructive of the band’s creative origins as a White Stripes album called “Nashville” would be, still Ward and the boys pull off the whole alt-country thing as convincingly as an Uncle Tupelo album. But it’s in their departures from that sound, as on the blistering “Sound the Alarm,” that things really start to get interesting.
The transcendent message Ward delivers throughout the album–“I will die and become stronger,” he threatens in the opening “A Broken Promise”–may or may not be the product of difficult ruminations imposed on him by terrific personal losses. But with an album as good as West Texas, it’s best to spend less time thinking about it and more time drinking it in–right down to the last available drop.
What an extraordinary exhibition of influence these songs offer: the echo of a latter day Lloyd Cole album drives a spike through the broken heart of “Heavy Weights,” the vaguely new wave “Sound the Alarm”–perhaps the album’s finest track–almost prepares you for Hall & Oates to take the mike and belt one out about a woman who only comes out at night as Mark Knopfler straps on a guitar and awaits his part. And if none of the material here really approximates Ward’s vision of a rootsy American rock album as closely as he may have desired–Jim Ward still sounds very much like the lead vocalist of Sparta throughout West Texas–it’s in his aspiration for a sound so alien to the music he’s known for that brings him–and his listeners–to some unexpected creative landscape where willows drip with a melting and late-season snow as an iron and sweeping sky rushes the day to dusk. You lift the collar of your coat to combat a dank chill in the air–one of the last of the season–and you grin and walk right through it as the year closes in on so many warmer days.
Only “Wednesday Nights” and “Fences Down” really hit the alt-country mark Ward seems to set his sights on here, songs that could quite easily pass themselves off as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtakes. But, again, it’s in the album’s misfires that something genuinely fascinating occurs, and it’s for that reason that we expect West Texas to feature prominently in Culturespill’s end-of-the-year “best of” lists. Don’t miss this record; it’s as close to a guaranteed pleasure as we may have heard all year (and check out the awesome videos on their myspace page!).