The Tender Age

I want to introduce you to an artist who has had his music swirling in my brain for the last two days. His name is Ward White, and he is a storyteller and a damn fine one at that. Ward is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. On top of that, Ward has a fine singing voice that is used to significant effect, climbing from baritone to tenor as he accompanies himself on songs. Ward White has a personal recording studio, and It takes talent to use all that electronica. Ward White is a well-spoken young man. Take, for example, his talk with Mark Mothersbaugh (yes, the Devo guy) on the LaunchLeft podcast hosted by Rain and Summer Phoenix (yes, they’re from that Phoenix family).

See, Ward White is an excellent conversationalist. Finally, well, finally, for this list. I am sure Ward has other attributes that are not listed here. Finally, Ward White has released a new album, The Tender Age, that today hits all your favourite streaming platforms. Physical copies are also available from Bandcamp.

Dang, that is one hell of a preamble. I almost hit the word count of some whole blogs that I’ve done. Never mind, let’s have another listen to The Tender Age, and I’ll let my mind wander over the keyboard as we do so.

The album opener is Dirty Clouds. It comes busting out with some mighty fine guitar chops from Ward and some nice Wurlitzer, courtesy of Grammy-nominee Tyler Chester. I fell in love with this song the first twenty times I heard it. Every one of the twenty times was a revelation of just how good this is. There is a fantastic groove going on here, and then the lyrics land on top—the storyteller kicks in now. Ward White spins a 4:00 minute vignette of dirty deeds done under cover of Dirty Clouds. This song is a short story in four parts, three of those refrains lamenting how difficult it is to accomplish various tasks “with all these dirty clouds obscuring Venus and Mars.” Hearing the refrain makes me wonder if Ward White dabbles in astronomy in the evening hours. I do, and this past summer was a perfect time to see Venus and Mars. They would have been challenging to navigate due to their closeness to each other and their low position in the evening sky, but I empathize with the dirty cloud refrain. Dirty Clouds are the bane of astronomy and the frequent companion of dirty deeds.

Drummer Mark Stepro (Wallflowers, Butch Walker) lays down some chops for the narrator of Easy Meat. It seems to be a narrative about battling against the urge to sin, with the narrator promising, “It was just a thought I had, I would never really act on it.” Ward White tells us that, “It’s not what I would consider a particularly sympathetic character, but his equivocations fascinate me. It brings to mind one of my all-time favorites, Randy Newman’s In Germany Before the War.” I didn’t remember the song, so I dug out the album and listened to that song and enjoyed becoming reacquainted with an old friend from the past.

Let’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight came out of a harrowing experience with the songwriter caught in the crossfire of an attempted murder while waiting for the light to change. “It was in Atlanta in the middle of the afternoon; I looked right in his eyes while he emptied the gun. When it was over, we just drove back to the hotel and ordered Indian food. The lyrics question the motive, but also my reaction, which ran the gamut from abject fear to ambivalence.” That would have scared the crap out of me. Driving through Mississippi in 2009, we witnessed two people trying to kill each other with their cars. That harrowing experience didn’t have any gunfire, so I can only imagine the emotions of being caught in the middle of a gunfight.

I like to learn something new every day. I learned today that Chet Baker had dentures. On the track Dentures, Tyler Chester lays down some sweet grand piano and Hammond, but the track left me wondering where the horn section was. The main character, after all, is a trumpet player who struggles to play, first with dentures and then in heaven. No trumpet on a song about Chet Baker, another one of life’s mysteries.

An LAPD cop with dubious connections rankles his partner with a surprise spiritual conversion in the title track, The Tender Age. “I haven’t decided if it’s supposed to be taken literally,” says White, “In fact, it might all be a dream. Metaphor, or otherwise, it’s about the transient nature of identity… or something.” In one of my previous identities, I was a preacher, and The Tender Age brought a smile to my day hearing Saul and Paul referenced in this manner. Well played, Ward, well played.

Biblical characters and narratives pop up several times in The Tender Age. There are numerous references to both the old and new testaments in the song, Wasn’t It Here. I am curious if the baritone deficiencies are self-deprecating.

We venture into the oral orifice a bit later in the song Karate Dentist. Karate Dentist is preceded by Heavy Lifting and followed by the album closer Monrovia. I sense, and I could be wrong, but I think Ward White references himself and the struggle that music can often be. There is the beautiful snippet, “Can’t you wrangle poetry from something more substantial than phonetics? Mangle some old greeting card, or plagiarize a rival’s perfect line?” That is from the closer Monrovia, a lovely song with shimmering guitar reverb and a plaintive refrain on the struggle to be authentic while telling stories.

The Tender Age was written and produced by White, who also provided all vocals, guitars, and bass. I told you he was talented. The Tender Age reunites Ward White with three long-time musical collaborators; drummer Mark Stepro, keyboardist Tyler Chester, and engineer/mixer John Spiker. “I’m always thrilled to reconvene with these guys, especially given their schedules; Tyler, who is as gifted a bassist as he is a keyboardist, produced and co-wrote Madison Cunningham’s Grammy-nominated debut album Who Are You Now. I was able to grab Mark just as he wrapped up tracking drums on The Wallflowers’ Exit Wounds, and John is always busy as bassist, engineer, and producer for Tenacious D” (as seen and heard in The D’s viral YouTube cover of Time Warp for Rock The Vote.)

Recorded in various Los Angeles locations, including White’s home studio, The Tender Age was mixed by Grammy-winner John Spiker (Tenacious D, Beck, Steve Earle) and mastered by Grammy-nominee, Joe Lambert.

There is a video for the lead song, Dirty Clouds, but I’m not much of a video watcher for starters, and I just wasn’t impressed with this one.

I see this video as a missed opportunity to visualize the story. Picture a dark train yard, a person trying to balance on the rails crossing between cars with lots of fog to give a punctuation mark to Dirty Clouds. Then I imagine a scene from a Humphrey Bogart movie, a vintage radio and a shady character reading a tabloid with the headline “Dirty Clouds” or “The Tender Age.” Cut to a cop in a smoke-filled police station calling someone as they try to make it through the bars and pan up to a dirty cloud obscuring Venus and Mars.

Alas, Ward White didn’t ask for my input before making the video, and for a good reason. He did not consult me because I am not a video producer. However, I am an observationist. I watch that which others make. I listen to the music that others have crafted. I observe and then write those observations down. Thank you for reading my comments on the album, The Tender Age, by Ward White. I think this is a well-made recording that deserves every one of the ten stars I am giving it.

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