Music

John Wesley Harding: The Sound of His Own Voice

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez's self-proclaimed bastard son looks back in whimsy.


John Wesley Harding

The Sound of His Own Voice

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2011-10-11
UK Release Date: 2011-10-10
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When John Wesley Harding arrived on the music scene in 1990, he probably expected to be called the New Dylan. After all, every singer-songwriter who followed in Dylan’s wake got that treatment. Harding even wrote a song for his debut album in which he preemptively declared, "Bob Dylan is my father / Joan Baez is my mother / And I am their bastard son." So, it must have been disappointing when, instead, he was declared the New Elvis Costello. On the surface, the comparison makes sense: like Costello, Harding is identifiably British, undeniably clever, and uses a lot of multi-syllabic words. On one of his albums, he even employed two-thirds of Costello’s backing band, the Attractions. But there is also a key difference between the two: where Costello’s early songs were self-described tales of "revenge and guilt", Harding’s are generally more playful than anguished. Where Costello was out for blood, Harding seemed mostly interested in drawing laughs. Indeed, the past master he has the most in common with is Loudon Wainwright III, who also reports on the world in a skewed and witty, but essentially benign, way.

Harding’s new album, The Sound of His Own Voice is yet another smorgasbord of flavorful musical dishes, but befitting his age -- at 45 he’s no longer the new anything -- the best tracks are flavored with a pinch of nostalgia and a dash of regret. Neither of these ingredients, however, are present on the lead-off track, "Sing Your Own Song", a simplistic paean to the simplicity of songwriting, sprinkled with a few flakes of paternal pride. Indeed, the recipe he provides is just about as flavorless as the song’s bouncy, banal tune: "You can write your own words / You can sing your own song / And it doesn’t really matter if you’re out of tune / Or if no one sings along / Cos if you do what you like / And you like what to do / Then someone somewhere knows you’re there / And the world may come to you / When you sing your own song." It’s the pop music equivalent of fast food for the kids, I suppose.

Each of the dozen tracks that follow has much more to recommend it. In "I Should Have Stopped", the narrator sees an old childhood flame at the laundromat, but walks on rather than saying hello, "Because it’s ancient history and we are not the same / And we will never know the mystery again." Here and elsewhere, Harding expertly captures both the wistfulness of old memories and the ambivalence of middle age refection. On "Uncle Dad", he deals with the complications of divorce, from a child’s point of view, with an equally light touch, seeing both the absurdity and the poignancy that result: "I remember once when he came in for a drink / And he was there in the morning / Sitting in the kitchen with a mug of instant coffee / Yawning / Mum was smiling when we went to school / Later she was in mourning." Such precise insights are rare in a three-minute song, but Harding (who also has three novels to his credit under his real name, Wesley Stace) delivers such little gems throughout the album.

Then there is "There's a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)", a piece of social satire that borders on genius, as Harding skewers our disposable culture but also reminds us that, no matter how superficial or artificial we make our world, we can’t escape our emotions: "There’s a chain store where mom and pop once prospered / They’re divorced now and they live in penury / Kids grown up and moved away / I hear that happens anyway / There’s a Starbucks where they live, I guarantee / There’s a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be / There’s a hard luck story everywhere you look / But oh the glory! / There’s a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be."

Towards the end of the album, Harding even manages to sneak in a song, "Good News (& Bad News)", that has no laughs at all, just a sad, melancholy reflection about the communication breakdown at the end of a relationship. It’s another perfect little gem on an album that confirms, once again, that Harding is not the new anyone else, but a uniquely gifted singer-songwriter in his own right.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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