Song of the Day, January 5: Kill the Messenger by John Wesley Harding

WesKillMsgrToday’s song kicks off John Wesley Harding’s finest album. Why We Fight is a wonderful cycle of songs about human conflict, leavened by Wes’ wit and fundamental sense of hope. Kill the Messenger opens the proceedings with a smart look at the ways we punish those who tell the truth. Even the person delivering news of the messenger’s fate winds up on the wrong end of this equation. With a rollicking alt-folk musical setting, the song blends irony and sincerity in a disarmingly bouncy package.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, May 15: Me Against Me by John Wesley Harding

WesMeMeToday’s song is the centerpiece of John Wesley Harding’s wonderful fourth album, Why We Fight. The disc looks at a variety of human conflicts from the geopolitical to the interpersonal. On this poignant track, Wes explores the most fundamental conflict — one man against himself. The lyrics are a smart narrative that read like a tragic love song but the one he needs to break up with is the one person he can’t leave. It’s a wonderfully crafted song delivered with just the right measure of wistfulness, showcasing one of Wes’ finest vocals.

And they say that it’s them and it’s us And they’ll tell you it’s you and it’s me But now I can see that it’s me against me

Enjoy this pensive tune today.

Song of the Day, November 11: Build Me A Coffin by John Wesley Harding

WesDynaCoffinToday’s song is John Wesley Harding’s Build Me A Coffin. After a live debut, four studio albums, and two EPs, Wes had left his original label, Sire, beginning a long run of one-disc-only contracts that gave him more flexibility and control. At the same time, he released a wonderful batch of outtakes and oddities through his fan club. Cleverly titled Dynablob (making the title and credit an anagram for the Dylan album from which he took his stage name), it’s a stronger set than many of its ilk. Most of the tracks are strong songs that just didn’t fit the album of the time rather than leftovers.

The standout is the wistful Build Me A Coffin. Opening in fine Wes style with “When there’s not enough rigor / but there’s too much rigor mortis,” it extends the metaphor of pulling the covers over one’s head to a rather permanent extreme. With an elegantly simple acoustic guitar behind his rapid-fire observations, he sings of failures and fears trivial and grand, personal and global.

You know that Hell just isn’t some kinda bottomless pit
It’s a chair in a long white corridor and you’re sitting in it
With clenched fists
The lifestyles of the rich and hopeless
I’m gonna build me a coffin and get right in
Sometimes it’s too much to see what’s happening around me

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, September 25: Where the Bodies Are by John Wesley Harding

WesBodiesToday’s song is Where the Bodies Are from John Wesley Harding’s wonderful fourth album Why We Fight. After a few years honing his distinctive mix of folk, pop, and post-punk sounds, Wes turned out his masterpiece, blending sharp observations, strong melodies, and lovely singing into a solid work. Not quite a concept album, the disc’s tracks all reflect on various forms of conflict. Where the Bodies Are is a standout, a sardonic look at forensic technology and the talents of the nefarious. Despite all our advances in science, he muses, a clever criminal is limited only by his wits. It’s a nice metaphor for reality celebrities and modern life, with a dig at the fallacies of neatly wrapped up cop dramas tossed in for fun. “Only I know where the bodies are,” he intones, “and I’m not telling you.”

Sparkling wordplay and charming vocals blend to make this a highlight in his fun and eclectic career. Enjoy this lovely track today.

Album of the Week, September 7: Why We Fight by John Wesley Harding

John_Wesley_Harding_-_Why_We_FightWesley Stace was born in Hastings in England in 1965, named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He was a successful student, attending Cambridge, where he received a First in English Literature. He also developed a passion for music, teaching himself guitar to the songs of John Prine and Bob Dylan and eventually writing his own songs. He abandoned academia for music in 1988 and caught the attention of Demon Records. Taking inspiration from Dylan’s classic album, he renamed himself John Wesley Harding.

Because his witty live shows had landed him the recording deal, the label took the unusual step of releasing a live disc as his debut. The follow-up was the sublime Here Comes the Groom, which showed off his clever lyrics, clear sense of musical history, and diverse talents in pop and folk. Unfortunately, a vague vocal similarity to Elvis Costello and backup work from two of the Attractions led to comparisons that have dogged him throughout his career. After another solid folk-pop outing with The Name Above the Title, Wes (as his fans know him) changed producers and recorded his most solid offering, Why We Fight.

Title Why We Fight
Act John Wesley Harding
Label Sire Release Date March 1992
Producer Steve Berlin
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Kill the Messenger
  2. Ordinary Weekend
  3. The Truth
  4. Dead Centre of Town
  5. Into the Wind
  6. Hitler’s Tears
  7. Get Back Down
  8. Me Against Me
  9. The Original Miss Jesus
  10. Where the Bodies Are
  11. Millionaire’s Dream
  12. Come Gather Round

While not literally a concept album, the twelve tracks all reflect on the many kinds of conflict that occur in modern life. Building on his solid folk roots, Wes crafted a set of wonderful story songs that show off some of his finest lyrics, tunes, and vocals.

Kill the Messenger sets the tone perfectly. A bitter tale based on the old adage, it features some fine playing backing up an ironic story with a sting in its tail. Ordinary Weekend is an even darker story, telling of a desperate fellow falling in with bad company and paying the price. The moral at the end of the song is especially poignant given the narrator’s fate. Closing out the initial trio is the haunting The Truth, an ode to political protest in an era of sensationalist media with short-term memories. It’s one of his finest moments on record and features a beautifully fragile vocal. (His shock at hearing the voice of God sound like Richard Gere is just icing on the lyrical cake.)

Dead Centre of Town takes the modern malaise in another direction, noting how urban decay and suburban flight have eroded our sense of community. It features some nice wordplay and picks up the pace a bit, driving the music forward compellingly. Into the Wind is a sad tale of self-defeat and bad choices, more sombre than snarky but equally effective. Hitler’s Tears, on the other hand, is an amazing tongue-in-cheek look at our demons and their potential humanity. Get Back Down is an energetic take-down of the self-important, a nice bit of sequencing that shows how good production can enhance even inherently strong material.

The album’s centerpiece is Me Against Me, a brilliant reflection on one of the saddest conflicts one can wage. In lesser hands, the song would be maudlin, but Wes manages to make these dark ponderings rich and human. With deft instrumentation and a quietly powerful vocal, it’s another highlight in his career overall. The Original Miss Jesus is a lighter number, an off-beat love song with fantastic wordplay and some nice reflections on the power of history. Where the Bodies Are is a prescient precursor to the whole CSI phenomenon, a biting look at forensics and humanity. This trio of songs is the powerhouse set of the album, demonstrating Wes’ strengths as a singer, lyricist, and musician with three diverse, stunning performances.

Millionaire’s Dream is a lushly sad ballad, a nice transition from the prior three songs into the album’s rousing closer. Come Gather Round is an ode to our shared humanity, a great sing-along in the folk tradition that encourages us to work together despite the conflicts rather than succumb to them. It’s a perfect closer that gives us a very different messenger than the ill-fated subject of the opening track. With this brilliant sequencing, strong performances all around, and a cohesive set of songs that shows off his experience and talent, John Wesley Harding turns in the strongest set in a solid career.

FURTHER LISTENING: Wes hasn’t made a bad album. Most of his discs show off a nice mix of charming pop and smart folk. The standouts are Here Comes the Groom, almost as strong as Why We Fight but a bit sprawling, and John Wesley Harding’s New Deal, his first in a series of one-off record deals that allowed him to pursue his diverse musical interests with less label interference. Trad Arr Jones is a wonderful set of traditional folk songs as arranged by the brilliant Nic Jones, a nice musical departure that shows off Wes’ sense of history. In recent years, he has also pursued a writing career as Wesley Stace, with three great novels so far. His latest musical offering is also under his birth name, reflecting its semi-autobiographical nature; it’s a solid song cycle that proves diversifying his talent hasn’t diluted it.

Song of the Day, June 3: It’s Only Make Believe

HardingHoganMakeBelieveToday’s song is It’s Only Make Believe. Country star Conway Twitty wrote it early in his career with help from band mate and childhood friend Jack Nance. (No, not the quirky actor who frequently worked with David Lynch!) His first major hit, it was also his only #1 on the pop charts. The song is an earnest recounting of unrequited love. It’s nicely constructed, with just enough emotion to catch the listener without overwhelming. Twitty’s delivery is quite fine, if a bit burdened by the musical tropes of the day. It’s been covered many times, with Glen Campbell taking it into the Pop and Country top 10s.

My favorite rendition of the song seems unlikely at first. Folk-pop singer and songwriter John Wesley Harding is close friends with alt-rock diva Kelly Hogan. They like to pop in at each other’s shows when they can, and I’ve seen them do this at a number of shows. Their show-stopper is a stunning rendition of It’s Only Make Believe. Kelly’s voice can make the most of almost anything, and Wes provides a sympathetic foil. Fortunately, insurgent country label Bloodshot included a nice take of their duet on the quirky compilation disc Making Singles, Drinking Doubles.

Enjoy this impressive alt-country cover today.

Song of the Day, December 12: When the Sun Comes Out by John Wesley Harding

WesSunToday’s song is When the Sun Comes Out by John Wesley Harding. It appears on his amazing second album, Here Comes the Groom. Harding shows off his folk roots, strong pop sensibilities, and ability to rock while backed by a solid band. The tracks show off the diversity of his musical skills — from social commentary to epic storytelling to charming pop anthems — while managing to maintain a consistent core that holds the whole package together.

When the Sun Comes Out is one of the highlights. Harding engages in some wonderful wordplay, mixing images from multiple scenes into a collage of hope and enthusiasm. Despite all the dark forces at work and the challenges of everyday life, sometimes it’s just worth celebrating. The music is buoyant and the singing is perfectly engaging. Each chorus rises up like a singalong, fitting the energy of the song.

But when the sun comes out
The world’s gonna go crazy
Everybody’s gonna move their arms about
Cos what they believed is turned inside-out
When the sun comes out

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, October 22: Nothing I’d Rather Do by John Wesley Harding

Today’s song is Nothing I’d Rather Do by John Wesley Harding, a great track from his first proper album, Here Comes the Groom. It’s an anthem of personal strength shared.

There’s nothing I’d rather do
Take you in and pull you through
Take you in and pull you through
There’s nothing I’d rather do

Today is Wes’ 47th birthday. Wish him many happy returns and enjoy this delightful song.

Song of the Day, June 2: The Original Miss Jesus by John Wesley Harding

Today’s song is The Original Miss Jesus by John Wesley Harding. It comes from his delightful 1992 album Why We Fight and features a man telling his girlfriend the hypothetical story of Jesus’ older sister. By turns witty and bittersweet, it features Wes’ trademark wordplay and sense of romance.

And then he came
The one that they wrote all the books about
The king of the rock opera
Whom she could do without

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, March 29: The Red Rose and the Briar by John Wesley Harding

Today’s song is The Red Rose and the Briar by John Wesley Harding. It appears on his delightful first album, Here Comes the Groom. Wes is a bit of a chameleon, but wry wit and a strong folk sensibility are the trademarks of all his albums, along with a darkish sense of humor. This song brings everything together brilliantly. It’s a beautiful folk ballad, updating the traditional song Barbara Allen; while the loss described is less terminal than the original song, it is crafted so powerfully that it is no less heart wrenching.

I saw an apron thrown over a chair
A note said ‘hey John we’re gone, we’re gone’
And I just smiled cos I loved you both
So I put the apron on
I put the apron on

There’s nothing there in the market square
But the ghost of the Scarlet Town Crier
And I just put the apron on
I sing the red rose and the briar
I sing the red rose and the briar

He closes the song with a soft reading of the opening of the original ballad, a nice tip of the hat. Enjoy this wonderfully constructed and beautiful song today.

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