Sometimes disparaged for his striking vocal similarity to Elvis Costello — who has, himself, expressed displeasure with the uncanny likeness — Wesley Harding Stace boasts many appealing virtues that belong to him alone. A witty but more straightforward wordsmith than Mr. C, he pens concise, catchy tunes, fancies himself a renegade folk musician rather than a pop artist and never takes himself too seriously.
It Happened One Night, Wes’ folky debut, is a friendly but unconvincing live album recorded in London in 1988. Armed only with an acoustic guitar and plenty of pep, Harding offers simple tales about common people and humorously pointed satire. There’s an especially clever number about Live Aid called “July 13th 1985” and a celebration of inspirations in “Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman, David Blue & Me.” Wes is not a strong melodicist, and his lyrics can be a bit artless, but Harding’s voice and personality are disarming, and a few of the songs (“The Devil in Me,” “Famous Man,” “You and Your Career”) are quite pungent.
God Made Me Do It, however, sets the course for Harding’s career. With three new tunes, a handsome cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and a wacky nine-minute natter between Wes and the inimitable Viv Stanshall, the albums (titled after a lyric in “Here Comes the Groom,” included on the EP) indicates what Harding can do in a studio with an ace band (dubbed the Good Liars) that includes Attractions Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas.
Crisply produced by Andy Paley, Harding’s first studio LP, Here Comes the Groom, is a fine modern realization of the same honest singing and playing that typified England’s pub-rock graduates. Informed by a solid knowledge of pop music and its traditions, Wes makes reference to everyone from the Everly Brothers to Steve Miller to Junior Walker to John Otway. Among the good stuff (some of it reprised from the live disc): the edgy, right- on “Scared of Guns,” the irreverent “The Devil in Me” and more soulful tunes like “You’re No Good” and “When the Sun Comes Out.” Folks who penalize Wes for echoing Elvis won’t be dissuaded by the presence of the Thomas and Thomas rhythm section on many tracks.
Had it preceded Here Comes the Groom, The Name Above the Title might have seemed fresher. Or maybe not. If Wes spent too much of the preceding album hanging around Elvis’ house, picking things up, he simply backed up a truck to the MacManus residence for this one and tried to cart it all away. While Harding doesn’t sound as if he’s intentionally trying to imitate anybody, there’s no getting around the way it comes out. And while he brings plenty of talent and originality (especially the lyrics, which are strictly his own style) to this enjoyable and intelligent party, the frequent resemblance to Costello gives what is in fact a fine album a waxy air of familiarity. Also, though most of the tunes, including “I Can Tell (When You’re Telling Lies)” and “The World (And All Its Problems),” possess the expected zing, Paley’s smart, detail-oriented production works against Harding’s folkie- with-attitude cheek. The cover of Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion” belongs on somebody else’s disc (maybe Paley’s); it’s got nothing to do with Wes.
Switching to Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin as the producer on Why We Fight, Harding opts for earthier, less contrived grooves and cuts down (though hardly eliminates) the Costello echoes. Billed as An experiment in Folk Noir, the album shines on “Where the Bodies Are,” a scathing indictment of the justice system that presaged the O.J. Simpson case, the blithely cynical “Kill the Messenger” and the delicate and touching “The Original Miss Jesus.” Harding also strives to ruffle feathers on a breezy fantasy entitled “Hitler’s Tears.” All in all, swell.
Pett Levels, an odds-and-ends EP, is Harding’s final release on Sire, the label that tried to find him an audience and failed. The delightful “Summer Single” has a vaguely Beach Boys feel and proves Wes can still be a dead ringer for Costello unless supervised closely.
Happily, New Deal finds Harding in prime artistic health after an extended absence from the scene. Featuring the boy and his guitar with minimal accompaniment — a steel guitar here, a fiddle there — this triumphant return is a relatively subdued yet consistently witty affair. Harding again tries on the mantle of Phil Ochs for “The Triumph of Trash,” a tart broadside against greed and mindless nostalgia, then turns sweetly wistful for “In Paradise,” a gentle sequel to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” On “Heart Without a Home,” “Infinite Combinations” and others, he sounds down but never out, saved from self- indulgence by keen intelligence and crisp melodies.
Dynablob, an intriguing fan club release available only by mail order, collects scraps ranging from 1986 to 1994, mostly the remnants of rejected studio sessions. Highlights include a countryfied version of “The Devil in (Little Ol’) Me,” the wonderfully jaunty “Talking Return of the Great Folk Scare Blues,” “The Celestial Shuttle” (verbose and overlong at eight minutes, yet still arresting) and the striking “Eating Each Other’s Babies,” all enhanced by the clever, typically self-deprecating liner notes. (And don’t miss the groovy faux-Dylan cover art.) Not for beginners, but essential for hardcore fans.