Audiophile Audition: Veteran Folk Singer Excels With Stripped Down, Populist Songbook

Audiophile Audition By Robbie Gerson

John Mellencamp – No Better Than This – Rounder Records (Mono)

(John Mellencamp - vocals, acoustic guitar; Andy York – acoustic, electric guitar; Marc Ribot – electric guitar, banjo; T Bone Burnett – acoustic, electric guitar; David Roe – bass; Jay Bellerose – drums, percussion; Miriam Sturm – violin)

The tradition of self-definition is sharply American. John Mellencamp has embraced his working class roots to identify his vision. After rejecting his forced “Cougar” stage name, his career has cultivated a proprietary sound that has generated many hit songs (Pink Houses, R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A, Jack and Diane, Small Town). But his sonic landscapes captured the aspirations and struggles of the common man, not unlike Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He is a co-founder of Farm Aid, and has been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His music can be grandiose or minimalist, but the universal themes of family, country, love and politics are very complex and layered.

Mellencamp’s teamed up with legendary producer T Bone Burnett for the 2008 release Life, Death, Love and Freedom, emphasizing a highly personal understated writing style. The album was greeted warmly by critics, and they have reunited for No Better Than This. Thirteen original compositions highlight this traditional country anthology. Recorded in mono at cultural shrines, Sun Studios in Memphis (Elvis Presley, Jerry lee Lewis, Johnny Cash), the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (site of “mythical” bluesman Robert Johnson recording), and the First American Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia (a former sanctuary for runaway slaves), Mellencamp is making a statement. Recorded with a fifty-five-year-old Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorder and one vintage microphone, the band creates a guitar-driven, austere sound, with a live feel. The gritty acoustics are effective and enhance the lyrical verve.

The deserved focus of this endeavor is the raspy-voiced storytelling, exploring the tribulations and celebratory nature of existence. “Save Some Time to Dream” is an exhortation to experience life’s travails, but question your faith in doing so. Both “Love at First Sight” (a humorous reflection on marriage), and “Don’t Forget About Me” (a wizened, sentimental glance at love) are rich in sentiment and pathos. ”Right Behind Me”, an incarnation of Delta blues, delineates the ambiguity of the eternal struggle for the soul. Jazzy violin runs by Miriam Sturt lend a hand to this evocation.
The entire record has the familiarity of a 1950s country session or a Saturday Night barn dance. Two rockabilly numbers, “Coming down the Road” and “No Better Than This”, both framed in a classic Johnny Cash train rhythm, seems to be a recollection of a bygone era. A serious tone is set on “West End” a growling, bluesy indictment of a progress that destroys towns and families. The sense of hopelessness is as relevant today as it was eighty years ago. The dark cautionary premise shows up on “A Graceful Fall” (an interesting waltz number) and “Each Day of Sorrow” as notes of desperation overcomes the narrator.

No Better Than This is destined to be an American classic.

TrackList: Save Some Time to Dream; The West End; Right Behind Me; A Graceful Fall; No Better Than This; Thinking About You; Coming Down the Road; No One Cares About Me; Love at First Sight; Don’t Forget About Me; Each Day of Sorrow; Easter Eve; Clumsy Ol’ World