M. Ward - A Wasteland Companion (Merge) 

Affable pop singer-songwriter’s new release somewhat burdened by cutesy schtick

Unlike most semi-rustic singer-songwriters, M. Ward has always seemed comfortable in his own skin, if not on stage. From Transfiguration of Vincent to Hold Time, he adorned his seductive melodies and splendidly atmospheric guitar work with an affable nonchalance. You could forgive him for sliding into benign prettiness, because it was something he was great at — exemplified by the pleasantly immersive back half of his new record, A Wasteland Companion.

Until now, an aversion to folky simplicity and an audible need to break out has informed extracurricular Ward projects like the lite-FM music he records with Zooey Deschanel as She & Him. Now, equally bewildering fixations have staked their claim on Wasteland Companion: the retro oddity "Primitive Girl" is somehow evocative of both ABC and Bryan Adams, and the handclap-addled attempted-pop "Sweetheart" has the unlikely distinction of featuring Ward cooing with wink-nudge irony about being driven "down Lovers' Lane." The guy's as likable as ever, but your tolerance of this cutesy schtick will probably depend on how much you enjoy Paul McCartney's recent solo albums.

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