John Wesley Harding: It Happened One Night & It Never Happened at All

Seth Limmer

An intimate evening is captured perfectly on It Happened One Night, while the companion disc It Never Happened at All lets loose more layered studio versions of much of the same material. The result is one warmly recorded and wonderfully reminiscent travel back in time, and one mistake that perhaps never should have happened at all.

John Wesley Harding

It Happened One Night & It Never Happened at All

Label: Appleseed
US Release Date: 2004-10-19
UK Release Date: Available as import

July 13th 1985 was the day we watched Live Aid. So reminds us one Wesley Stace, better known to the public through his adaptation of a Dylan moniker stolen from a gunslinging Texas robber, John Wesley Harding. A bizarre historical confluence has brought to light these past few months not only a four-disc DVD release of most of the original Live Aid footage, but also a double album package of John Wesley Harding's first release, It Happened One Night, which features the tongue-in-cheek paean to artists' attempts to ameliorate Africans, "July 13th 1985". While the former shares heartwarming images of Bob Geldof working to feed the world, the latter remarks facetiously of having the Boomtown Rats' frontman canonized, (Little did Wes know Geldof would later be knighted). What the contradistinction of these two packages allows us to see is that Live Aid, with all of its concomitant sincerity and straightforward "feed the world" devotion, was the apogee of the heartfelt 1980s; the decade was about to be drowned by the ironic riptide of artistic distance that has dominated the stage of popular music since the glue of human kindness has come off the proverbial Band Aid. And there has been no better (although there have been minion better known) ambassador of all things ironic, insincere and otherwise postmodern in modern music than the man who would take it upon himself to mock Live Aid, John Wesley Harding.

Choosing to define himself by a collapsible chain of signifiers was the first clue that JWH meant to be more than the surface seemed. His voice and style sound incredibly like the similarly-pseudonymed Elvis Costello, and spookily surrounding himself in the studio with Costello's Attractions. He sinks himself into titles like "Song I Wrote About Myself in the Future", and now, Harding releases two distinct versions of his debut album, even though one is being heard now for the first time, 15 years after its recording. For his fans, this is a big deal: we (yes, I've been included in this group ever since I saw him perform solo on the Awake tour) get to hear hard-to-find faves and discover clues to Harding's character-building early years. We witness Wes' audacity in making his first record, It Happened One Night, as a live album. What the artist now looks back upon as a mistake nonetheless allows the listener an incredibly personal window into his creativity and capacity to be present, which is unfortunately washed out at times on his studio recordings. And while an intimate evening is captured perfectly on It Happened One Night, the companion/alternate/bonus disc It Never Happened at All lets loose more layered studio versions of much of the same material. The result is one warmly recorded and wonderfully reminiscent travel back in time, and one mistake that perhaps never should have happened at all.

"Bob Dylan is my father/Joan Baez is my mother/And I'm their bastard son" sings Harding in his signature piece that seems a send-up of modern culture, yet whose humor (including tutoring sessions from uncle Leonard Cohen and family friend James Taylor) covers over an interesting statement of the true power of creation that his musical forbearers possess. An early live version of "Bastard Son" comes to close out It Happened One Night; this won't come to replace the authoritative version on JWH's now-displaced major label debut Here Comes the Groom, but it's great to hear Harding's hysterics live. A sentiment similar to this anthem is found on the more haunting description of the artist's party, whose guest list was limited to "Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman, David Blue & Me". Even when approaching the sincerity of gratitude in this track, Harding has to create a distorted reality of a dinner soiree that never could have been. Thirty years after Dylan's "Song to Woody", after the ascent of irony and the downfall of straightforward lyricism, Harding can only express his love for his favorite folks sideways, with a grin protecting his deepest feelings. Harding seems, in this respect, not so much a child of his postmodern times as the poster boy for how to translate the movement's ethos so seamlessly into the form, design and execution of popular music.

But beyond the social criticism, Harding's music has always been simply enjoyable. Yes, he's sort of a folksinger, but not in Dylan's famous "folk music is a bunch of fat people" way. Having later in his career christened his band the "gangsta folk" pretty much explains Harding's musical approach: He's a singer dependent upon intricate lyrics; he relies predominantly upon strumming his acoustic guitar, but he wouldn't be caught dead singing "The Water is Wide" (unless, of course, he wanted to poke fun at a bar whose beer is tapped). The pleasure of Harding's company is evident everywhere on the live and acoustic It Happened One Night: during his description of theodicy in "The Devil in Men", throughout his testament to troubadours on "One Night Only" and even when luring the crowd into a folksy Prince sing-a-long only to cut it off immediately in order properly to frame his description of "Lover's Society". From remembering the death of John Lennon ("Famous Man") to celebrating the life of his hero ("Roy Orbison Knows"), those who listen to Harding's first of three debut albums will count themselves lucky that it -- that concert -- happened one night.

On listening to the second disc (and, if you're trying to keep track, the second-recorded but third-released debut), I would imagine most would agree it better if the release of this mediocre collection had never happened at all, although given the title, I'm not sure Wes doesn't know this himself. Save "The Night He Took Her to the Fairground", outstanding for sounding like a lost track from Elvis Costello's Trust, none of the studio versions of songs found on other albums really top those recordings: "Roy Orbison Knows", "Pound Pound Pound" and "Who You Really Are" are better on It Happened One Night, while "Same Thing Twice", "Lover's Society" and "Save a Little Room for Me" crop up in superior version on subsequent releases. While little on It Never Happened at All is terrible, little is enlightening. I would imagine that even the most dedicated of Harding followers [myself included], will rarely return to this most mediocre of music from an otherwise worthy artist.

Speaking of which, I should probably note that this review has pretty much already ended. If you haven't determined it yet, It Happened One Night & It Never Happened at All is worth buying, just with the precaution that you should spend a lot more time on the first disc and try not to get discouraged by the latter. Still, in post-script, I should note that one really interesting moment crops up on the aforementioned second-disc of long-shelved material: an answer to the nagging question about the overall musical value of Steve Nieve (pronounced "naïve", as in the person who doesn't understand from the spelling that this, too, is a pseudonym). As keyboardist for the Attractions, now with the Imposters, and even accompanying Elvis Costello without these two bands on a piano-and-crooner tour some years back, Steve Nieve has always perplexed me; He could fill out a song beautifully as on "Shot With His Own Gun", or nearly ruin an album as with his unrestrained over-playing an incessant noodling on Armed Forces. Nieve gets major props for the way Elvis has always stood by him, but he still takes the worst and most unlistenable solos in concert. So, the question always tugging at my ears is this: Is the modern musical world better because Steve Nieve is in it, or would he have been better relegated to the classical world he all too often superimposes on otherwise perfectly fine pop music?

The answer is found on track 11 of It Never Happened at All. On the beautifully delicate "One Night Only", delivered so perfectly on It Happened One Night, Nieve is set free to create the entire musical track that will back Harding's vocals. Given a complete artistic freedom Costello never let him have, Nieve shows his true colors as he creates a wall of sound equal in destructive power only to the one that once divided Berlin in two. Faux farsifa organs, synthesized click tracks, random animal noises, and the worst computer-orchestrated bridge I have ever heard make this reductio ad absurdum take of "One Night Only" a historical highlight because of its value as a footnote. Evidently Harding's faith in Nieve's ability lasted long enough for Steve to record this song, which was then was put on the shelf along with Wes' belief in the keyboardist's artistry. Yet the fact remains that left unattended, Nieve kills a good song. Thus the answer to one of the minor inquiries of piano-playing sidemen to Elvis Costello, and those who sound incredibly like him: Steve Nieve stinks.

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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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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