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Music Review: Columbia's Marv Ward continues miraculous post-stroke comeback on new album

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Rev. Marv Ward’s “Sparkling Isolation” (self-released)

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Before we get to Rev. Marv Ward’s new album, “Sparkling Isolation,” we need to pause and be grateful that he is still making music at all. He had a severe stroke back in 2017, and it’s a minor miracle that he was able to relearn how to sing and play guitar.

And he does both with authority on this collection, even better than he did on his first post-stroke comeback LP, 2019’s “Shine.”

Ward claims to have lost some of his range and mobility, but when he thunders into the swaggering “I Want To Rock You,” the second track on the album, you’d never know it. His gruff, borderline obscene come-ons (he offers to take you “all the way to the money shot” at one point) pack a hell of a punch, and his spitfire acoustic playing sounds just fine.

You’re not necessarily looking for originality on a blues album, but Ward manages to work some unique flair into his material, whether it’s the homespun, harmonica-driven shuffle “Cackalacky Blues” (the album’s first track) or the title tune, which celebrates an upside to the pandemic lockdown with a jaunty fiddle and lovable lines like “Quarantine ain’t so hard / There’s nothin’ I’d rather do / Than be alone with you.”

Ward is versatile as hell on “Sparkling Isolation,” working his way through slow grinds like “I Need A New Mojo,” contemplative folk-blues ballads like “Nowhere Fast,” funky, percussion-heavy funk jams like “Angel In My Arms” and mandolin-fueled country blues like “The Miracle Of You.” And the closing track, “Picture & a Pillow,” is a hilarious calamity, a filthy, sputtering musical locomotive that seems ready to fly apart at any moment.

Ward really only fails once here, on “Lost in You,” a layered, schmaltzy ballad that sounds like it belongs on another album. On a collection of rockin’, lustful blues, lines like, “I can see destiny / Future that is to be,” stick out like a sore thumb.

But eight winners out of nine tracks isn’t a bad ratio. So why does Sparkling Isolation feel more like a near-miss than a triumph? Bluntly, it’s the production. Every instrument on the album is polished to a fault. There’s no edge, no grit in the mix, and at times, all of the players sound oddly isolated, as if they recorded their parts one at a time in separate studios.

This is an album of grimy blues that begs for a raw, live-in-the-studio sound, and unfortunately, everything sounds too clean, too manicured, too “adult contemporary.” Ward’s music is most DEFINITELY adult, but it needs to be a lot less contemporary.

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