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ELVIS? THAT YOU? : When You're Listening to John Wesley Harding, It's Hard Not to Think of Costello

May 30, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Album titles are a big deal with John Wesley Harding.

Born Wesley Harding Stace, the cheeky British rocker swiped his stage name from the title of a Bob Dylan record.

Harding's own albums are called "Here Comes the Groom" and "The Name Above the Title," and the liner notes to each include the singer's comments on why he chose those particular titles from a plethora of possibilities.

Since Wes, as he calls himself, is so caught up in the name game, we figured we'd throw out a title suggestion for his next release:

"Hey, Aabbbottt!!"

After all, as Harding's fans and doubters agree, he sounds an awful lot like a Costello. And since there's a wry spirit and a penchant for quoting from past pop culture running through Harding's music, maybe he'll keep old Lou in mind when it comes time to name another record.

Listening to Harding's two releases so far, it's hard to keep Costello (not Lou, but Elvis) out of mind. Harding's tone and phrasing are so close to the British Costello's that an uninitiated listener easily might suppose that Wes is Elvis.

Like Elvis, Wes mines the '70s British pub-rock tradition that hearkens back to American country and R&B roots. On his records (but not in his four-man touring band, the Deceivers), Harding even employs Bruce and Pete Thomas, the bass and drums team from Elvis's old backing trio, the Attractions. And, like Costello, Harding often can't resist a play on words, even when it leads him into brambles of verbiage that might best have been pruned.

There is a difference in sensibilities, though. If one enlists Costello's old line "Well I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused" as a gauge for comparison, Costello usually exudes far more disgust. Harding, with his youthful zest, manages to sound amused even when singing about faithlessness, violence and stupidity (although he is capable of playing the straight man on an aching ballad).

Harding's prolixity and unchecked cleverness can be annoying (maybe he picked up those tendencies while earning a literature degree from Cambridge). But at 25 he has a fine grasp of pop roots, a good melodic knack and, when he isn't being too wordy or too clever, the ability to craft winning, heartfelt songs.

What: John Wesley Harding and the Deceivers.

When: Thursday, May 30 at 8 p.m.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, with the JudyBats.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Center.

Wherewithal: $16.50.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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