John Wesley Harding: Awake: The New Edition

[22 January 2001]

By Kevin Mathews

Appearing a mere two years after its release in 1998, awake—attributed to John Wesley Harding and the Gangsta Folk—seemed to be an exercise in reinvention for the British singer-songwriter. Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek attempt at updating Harding’s straightforward pop-rock stylings and distancing himself from the incessant comparisons to Elvis Costello which have dogged Harding since he recorded his debut here Comes the Groom with the Attractions.

With the funky drum breaks in “Your Ghost (Don’t Scare Me No More)”, the lighter-and-match-strike percussion loop of “Burn” and the wide variety of instrumentation—from noisier guitars to ghostly Dr. Dre-style synths to telephone noises to e-bows, moogs and mellotron—it would be easy to ignore the fact that Harding is more about the song than the style.

Songs like “Window Seat”—wherein an entire life is recounted, from cradle to grave, on an airplane, “Miss Fortune”—about an orphan boy rescued by a tycoon and raised as a girl, “I’m Staying Here (And I’m Not Buying a Gun)”—detailing the dogged determination to survive against the circumstances and “You So&So”—regarding the stranger complexities of a life in love, are typical of Harding’s unrelentless pursuit of excellence in songcraft.

The presence of such pop luminaries as Chris Von Sneidern, Chuck (Green On Red) Prophet, Kurt (Fastbacks/Young Fresh Fellows) Bloch, Robert (Television) Lloyd, Scott (Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows) McCaughey marks awake as an album of distinctive theh and now.

The extra tracks on this new edition strip away the additional sonic qualities found on awake proper to reveal tender and fragile acoustic vignettes.

Songs like the previously ‘hidden’ “Wooden Overcoat”, the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Jackson Cage” (from The River), the rockabilly “Punch ‘n’ Judy” and the ‘live’ duet with Springsteen on “Wreck on the Highway” (also off The River), showcase Harding’s folk roots to good effect.

An additional treat is the catchy “I Just Woke Up” which appears in somewhat garbled form on the album proper as the opening “Good Morning (I Just Woke Up)”, great to finally hear this fine track in its entirety.

If you missed out on this first time out, do not make the same mistake twice.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/johnwesleyharding-awake/