John Wesley Harding

The Confessions of St. Ace (Mammoth/Malt)

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Before he was sidelined by aspirations to become a full-time folk singer, John Wesley Harding was earmarked for pre-alt-rock stardom in the modern rock arena. He was witty, charming, and positively poppy on his marvelous 1989 debut EP God Made Me Do It -- The Christmas EP. The full-length follow-up, Here Comes the Groom, was nearly as good. A consummate singer-songwriter, Harding always preferred to tell his stories with as little clutter as possible. It wasn't much of a surprise that he tired of the pop detour a few albums later and spent the remainder of the '90s chasing his folk muse. On The Confessions of St. Ace, his first pop album in seven years, Harding dives back in with a zest not present since his formative recordings a decade ago. There are some kinks here (as to be expected from a guy who's spent the past several years playing the people's troubadour), but his gift for melody -- something shoved aside during his folk years -- rings through on most of the album.

At its best moments, The Confessions of St. Ace is Harding's most rock-oriented album. Recorded in Nashville, but retaining only that city's patented gloss, it steers its way among the backstreets of '60s pop, '70s muscle rock, and '80s jangly college rock. A duet with Steve Earle and a cameo from Jimmie Dale Gilmore add to the album's charm, but it's Harding's return to pop songwriting that delivers the goods. "She's a Piece of Work" and "I'm Wrong About Everything" (which was featured in the pop music-obsessed High Fidelity) are subtle and smart songs -- maybe not so overjoyed as their God Made Me Do It counterparts, but sharp nonetheless. The album's excess polish and a few bumpy tracks give The Confessions of St. Ace an unnecessary bulk, but it's nice having Harding back making pop records.

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