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November 9th, 2011 12:01 am JEFF ROSENBERG | Music Stories

Strike Up the Band

John Wesley Harding was a friend to the Portlanders.

musiclist_johnwesleyharding_3801JOHN WESLEY HARDING - IMAGE: Bill Wadman
John Wesley Harding and the Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee are trading a Chuck Berry-style do-si-do. No, not the duck walk, but that other thing Chuck does—bent at the knee and pointing one foot out while hopping forward on the other. It’s a giddy moment at a private, pre-tour appearance that reflects the spirit of friendship pervading Harding’s new album, The Sound of His Own Voice.

John Wesley Harding’s brief tour is a natural outgrowth of what was by all accounts a breezy  recording process for his new album, which took place in a little over a week last November in Portland. Tracked mostly live at Type Foundry studios by Adam Selzer, the disc was co-produced by Harding and the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey, and its band—a sextet puckishly dubbed the King Charles Trio by Harding—includes such longtime companions of Harding’s as McCaughey and (might I be the first to label him such?) ex-REM guitarist Peter Buck. Another old amigo and Stumptown-dweller, Los Lobos sax man Steve Berlin, honks on the disc as well. The balance of the band comprises the sans-Meloy Decemberists, more recent pals of Harding’s. “In 23 years of making music,” Harding says, “I have never [before] taken the same band on tour that I made an album with.”

“Wes,” as he’s known (his given name is Wesley Stace), has never dwelled in Portland; he skipped over us on what he calls his “circuitous route around America,” having stopped in Atlanta, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn and Philadelphia, where he currently lives with his wife and two children. (Should they leave, he says, “my next move is probably to fuck off home” to his native England.) Nonetheless, he has forged a tight Portland bond.

The streamlined album sessions connected the songwriter to an simple recording approach. “You get used to making albums in this modern age with Pro Tools,” he says. “Adding a bit here and there, and thinking about it…. But what I forgot is that when you make a record with a band, and they’ve arranged the songs and are playing them really well, there’s little overdubbing that actually needs to be done.”

Harding is an exemplar of the Artist as Record Store Geek (as are certain other King Charles Trio members), and despite its title, The Sound of His Own Voice is replete with guileless references to the sounds of the Kinks, Phil Spector, Bowie, Julian Cope and even Gilbert O’Fucking Sullivan. But Harding’s good nature and the Trio’s sure-handed performance assure the work its own identity. 

Coming off like some mooted BBC sitcom’s theme song, “Uncle Dad,” a wry tale of post-divorce family politics, is most redolent of a Ray Davies-style, echt-Brit knees-up. Harding readily confesses the debt: “Whenever I tackle domestic stuff,” he says, “I think in a Kinks-y way, and those songs come with their own kind of English music-hall shuffle that’s second nature to me.” 

The album’s closer, the inoffensively philosophical “The World in Song,” conjures a Spectorian soundscape à la George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Like a thumbnail version of The Tree of Life, its two verses and chorus span the cosmic (“[T]he stars they sang a melody/ And breathed life into you and me”) to the cozily domestic (“I woke up feeling good/ And you look so beautiful asleep”).

The collection’s centerpiece is Harding’s adaptation of John Whitworth’s poem, “The Examiners,” which evokes a huge influence. “I love Leonard Cohen,” says Harding, “and I’ve always wanted to intone a song in that meaningful and heavy—but hilarious—way that he does it. And I simply think that I couldn’t do it because I’ve never felt confident enough about one of my lyrics to do that.”

Perhaps it’s Harding’s latest batch of songs, written in the year since the album was made, that will approach that lofty level. Producer McCaughey calls them “the biggest evolution in Wes’s songwriting, [songs] that veer away from technical wordsmithery to a very personal, autobiographical perspective.” With a little help from his Portland friends, then, Harding seems to be growing ever closer to the true sound of his own voice. 

SEE IT: John Wesley Harding and the King Charles Trio play the Aladdin Theater on Friday, Nov. 11, with the Minus 5. 8 pm. $17.50. 21+.

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