Click to hear: “Splendora Texas”
A few months ago, John Wesley Hartley walked into my life, guitar in hand, on the back deck of Free Street Taverna. He was with his folk cohort, Paul Bishop Brown. I gathered the two had been to the bar, this one and/or several others.
I had just sought refuge on the deck after watching Dominic and the Lucid slaughter The Beatles’ “Dig a Pony” on stage downstairs. When Brown started strumming and both got singing, it was like an inebriating breeze of fresh air.
These two young men have natural talent and charisma to spare, and they’re beginning to attract a small cult following through appearances at Acoustic Coffee, Blue, and who knows-where-else.
Brown is still working on his debut album, but Hartley’s came out this year. It’s billed as John Wesley Hartley and Friends. Brown’s not on it, but four others join Hartley — who plays guitar, keys, bass, and harmonica – with yet more guitars and a little Hammond organ.
Texan Diaspora is a strong debut. Hartley’s voice is the main attraction. Dylan casts his long shadow, as usual, but Hartley’s got something of Vic Chesnutt’s quirky tonality, and just like Vic, he’s not afraid to let it fly.
There’s affectation here, no doubt. Hartley’s too young to sound so world-weary, as he does on several tracks. But his voice is genuine, and he certainly isn’t the first young-old soul to sing the folk blues.
“Splendora Texas,” the finest song on the record, starts things off. Hartley and Brown crooned this one that night on the deck, and soon had everyone in earshot hee-hawing along. It’s an instant classic, a paean to laziness and high times that could be the soundtrack to your summer or, if you’re not careful, your life.
“Down Home Salty Dog,” a drunken folk-blues nugget Hartley mumbles and yelps through, follows “Splendora,” echoing the natural progression from sloth to stupor. But from there, for the most part, the party’s over, and Hartley descends into a sobering sadness.
“Tonight” and “Empty Apartment,” the next two numbers, are characteristic ofTexan Diaspora: haunting recordings full of regrets, fatigue and mostly unrequited longing. “Trapped in your city of barstools,” he sings on the latter. “It’s the only place I feel at home/with the lonelyhearted fools/and Southern Comfort.”
Flourishes of pretty melodies and lightly plucked guitar lines leaven the gloom somewhat on songs such as “Lips Like Rain,” but by the end of the album, Hartley’s just dragging himself along, and it can be a drag on the listener to bear that load with him.
This is not to downplay the fine lyrics to be found throughout this record. “I’ve seen enough reality shows to know you’ve been untrue,” he warbles on “12 Packed Hours.” It’s tricky to toss a current reference like that into a song sung in a style as old as the hills, but Hartley pulls it off.
“False Hearts” is a great acoustic indie-rock song that gives Hartley a vehicle to stretch his voice to its odd outer limits. “High school sweethearts fall apart after college parties,” he observes. This tune should be on the CMJ charts.
“Mexico,” a rollicking ride of a song, likewise lets Hartley exercise his pipes and – for two-and-a-half minutes, at least — escape the melancholy that pervadesTexan Diaspora. It also helps that most of the songs are as short as this one.
Hartley has a bright music future, provided, of course, that he never finds true happiness. I’ll pass along a suggestion from D. Boon: “Maybe partying will help.”
— Chris Busby