John Wesley Harding
The Music Box's #1 album for 1998
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 1999, Volume 6, #1
Written by John Metzger
Over the past decade, John Wesley Harding has built a cult-like following through his relentless touring schedule and his consistently strong skills as a songwriter. Awake is his debut on Zero Hour Records, and this conceptual work by far his best effort to date.
First and foremost, Harding is an artist who is influenced by the storytelling of fellow folk singer John Prine. Harding's clever wit and his distinctive ability to turn a phrase keep the multi-layered meanings of the songs on Awake open to interpretation. Even album's title is a play on words, and the usage of two different fonts on its cover makes this distinction clear. In addition, the liner notes indicate this disc is "a wake for Mark Brand," and the songs are a series of vignettes sandwiched between the ringing of an alarm clock.
Each song on Awake certainly can stand on its own — telling its own story as if from a dream. However, when the material is taken in total, there are parallel images and themes that seem to recur or advance the overarching narrative that Harding delivers. The teenager who sets off the smoke alarms in Window Seat becomes the joking pyromaniac of Burn. The spirit that haunts Your Ghost (Don't Scare Me No More) revisits Harding on both You're Looking at Me and You So & So. Finally, the outing's hidden track Wooden Overcoat seems to drive home the point that the effort deals with the death of a loved one and the subsequent rediscovery of life that the survivors must endure.
Harding also has learned how to utilize the studio to his best advantage. Incorporating influences from the '60s through the '90s, he has created a sound that he has labeled "gangsta-folk," and he fully explores this format, while pushing it as far as he can. The infectious groove of the songs combines a definitive blend of pop and folk, mixing drum loops with Beatle-esque harmonies. There are plenty of tender moments as well — like his superb duet with singer Kelly Hogan on It's All My Fault.
Throughout Awake, Harding and producer Chris von Sneidern pay the utmost attention to every detail and incorporate a variety of sounds to further illustrate Harding's lyrics. They brilliantly include the reverberation of an airplane flying through life on Window Seat, turn the percussive flick of a lighter and the burning of matches into the rhythm track of Burn, and introduce Sweat Tears Blood and Come with a funereal prelude.
Discerning the meaning behind the narrative of Awake is like reading a good book, and the melodies are downright compelling. Harding's lyrics and music always have been strong, but on Awake, his experience comes to fruition. Simply put: Awakeis the pinnacle of his career.
Of Further Interest...
Awake is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box