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Toledo Blade: Mellencamp Goes Organic On New Album - No Better Than This Review
08.16.2010 - Toledo Blade By David Yonke

Mellencamp goes organic on new album

Picture John Mellencamp in rumpled jeans and a black T-shirt, cigarette dangling from his lips, strumming a well-worn acoustic guitar on a breezy back porch.

That's not literally how the Indiana rocker recorded his new album, "No Better Than This," but the disc that will be released Tuesday has that simple, earthy, earnest feel of a bygone era.

It's a retro record that is more about honesty in artistry than wistful nostalgia, with Mellencamp thumbing his nose at the digitized, multitracked, processed sounds that fill the 21st century airwaves.

It is, Mellencamp said, the most "rebellious" of all his 25 albums.

"I decided to go just as far away from the popular culture of music as I possibly could and just go back to where it began," he explained, leaning against a tall chair in a hotel room in Windsor, Ont., before performing a concert later that night at Caesars Palace.

In an era when virtually every hit song is recorded with computerized equipment that isolates each instrument and enables post-recording alterations and overdubs, Mellencamp recorded all of his new songs on a 1955 Ampex mono tape recorder using a single vintage RCA ribbon microphone to capture the action.

"There are no overdubs, no echo, there's no anything," he said. "It's just what the room sounded like and it was fun because it was musicians actually playing music, as opposed to building a record or constructing a song."

The 13 songs were written last year in a flurry of creativity, one of those rare periods of inspiration that artists dream of when the floodgates open and verses, choruses, and arrangements flow like a raging river.

"I wrote all those songs in about 10 to 15 days, I don't know. It was just, I'd get up every morning and I'd write. I'd write two or three songs in a day and I let the songs write themselves, as opposed to sometimes when you write songs you try to steer them a way that you would like them to go," Mellencamp said.

"But these songs, I just, they kind of wrote themselves really. I just let them go wherever they wanted to go and that's how they ended up."

What flowed from Mellencamp's muse are gritty, spartan, touching tunes about life, love, and loss as told by a grizzled troubadour who's seen it all.

His gravelly voice, rubbed to a perfect rasp by a million cigarettes, harks back to twangy folk, Southern blues, traditional country, and Memphis rock, echoing the classic sounds of music icons ranging from Robert Johnson and Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

One of the new disc's most memorable tunes is "Right Behind Me," opening with a haunting violin and a spare, staccato guitar as Mellencamp gives his lyrics a Tom Waits-style grumble and growl.

"I know Jesus, and I know the devil.

They're both inside of me, all the time.

This is ain't no picnic that I'm living.

Just a resting place before it's time to go.

You see, the devil, he thinks he got me.

But he ain't got me ... No."

The first single off "No Better Than This" is the title track, a jangly folk-rocker with a full band romping along at a jaunty pace. Mellencamp must have been coming from a good place, figuratively speaking, when he sings that "you could give me back my youth" or "a fist full of money" or "50 girls waitin' on me," "but it won't get no better than this."

The rock and roll hall of famer explained his recording strategy to The Blade and the Toledo Streets newspaper, which helps the homeless, following up on a 2007 visit by the singer, his wife, and then 12-year-old son Speck to Toledo's Tent City.

Mellencamp said in Windsor that the new disc was recorded last summer while he was trekking across the country with Dylan and Willie Nelson, performing concerts at minor-league baseball stadiums.

He saw the tour as a perfect opportunity to take that 55-year-old Ampex mono tape recorder for a ride.

"It was kind of a leisurely tour, so I thought, well, hell, at the time, let's make the most out of this," he said.

Working with producer T-Bone Burnett, with whom he recorded 2008's "Life Death Love and Freedom," Mellencamp scheduled recording sessions at three American musical meccas.

His wrestling-with-the-devil song "Right Behind Me," for example, was taped in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Delta blues legend Robert Johnson recorded "Terrapane Blues" and "Dust My Broom" more than 70 years ago.

He went to far as to cover over the carpet with a wooden dance floor to recreate the sound of the room from the 1930s, and faced the same corner that Johnson sang into when he recorded.

Mellencamp also visited 706 Union Ave., Memphis the home of Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Howlin' Wolf recorded.

Sam Phillips, the late owner of Sun Studios, put black X's on the linoleum floor marking the best spots, acoustically, for the musicians to stand.

"We set up on those X's and put a ribbon mic between them," Burnett said in the album liner notes. "As soon as the band hit the first note, the room came alive."

Mellencamp also recorded at the First African Baptist Church, built in 1775 in Savannah, Ga.

The church floor has diamond-shaped holes that provided air for travelers on the Underground Railroad who were hiding in the basement, Burnett said in a news release. "The church is filled with history. The vibe in the church is profound. During the sessions, John and Elaine Mellencamp got baptized underneath the altar where we were recording."

Mellencamp entrusted the tapes to Burnett, sending him to Los Angeles with orders to "make them coherent."

"It was absolutely the most fun I've ever had making a record in my life," Mellencamp said. "It was about making music organic music made by real musicians that's heartfelt and written from the best place it can come from."

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