John Wesley Harding is either a monster in the making or a genuine talent currently gone a bit awry; on his first English album, It Happened One Night, and his American debut, Here Comes the Groom, he was nicely positioned as a wiseass pop folkie, safely nestled in the shadow of Elvis Costello. Very smart–or maybe just very glib–and kept afloat by pockets full of buoyant melodies, he was likable as hell and finessed the weaknesses of his first records with intermittent gems like Groom’s title track, an ardent metaphor for the relationship between performer and audience. But his new record, The Name Above the Title, is kind of annoying–his tendency to moralize seems to be growing (the new “people’s Drug,” following Groom’s “The Devil in Me”) and now he’ll do schlock, too (“The Movie of Your Life”). But Harding’s a weird one. His record company just sent out Collected Stories 1990-1991, a small booklet in which Harding has expanded his songs into diffuse, almost surreal short stories. He’s trying to make a case for his writing, I think; I’m not sure it works (I like some of the stories better than the songs), but you got to admire the baroque methodology. I like how Harding gets rock: on songs like “Bastard Son,” “When the Beatles Hit America,” even his very funny acoustic cover of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” his giddy affection for the music comes through. Live–he’s been in town several times solo–he’s generally a riot; the show tonight is his first in Chicago with a full band, the Good Liars. It shouldn’t be boring. Tonight, 7:30 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 929-5959.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Melodie Gimple.