Big City Blues: No Better Than This Review

By Gary von Tersch

John Mellencamp's music career - he is also an accomplished painter and is currently working on a play with Stephen King - has spanned nearly four decades. He's shifted from fronting a soul band in his native Indiana at 14, to being a pre-fab pop idol (remember "Pink Houses"?) to one of the most highly regarded songwriters of his generation.

Enlisting producer T-Bone Burnett along with an organic-sounding combo of Burnett, Andy York and Marc Ribot on guitars, bassist David Roe and drummer Jay Bellerose, Mellencamp recorded the 13 original titles on No Better Than This on off days during his national tour in 2009 with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.

Sessions took place at three historic locations. The bluesy, eerily fiddle-fraught (Miriam Sturm) "Right Behind Me" was recorded in San Antonio, Texas in room 414 of the fabled Gunter Hotel, where the legendary Robert Johnson first recorded for Brunswick Records in November 1936. Three selections, highlighted by the late-night answering machine blues "Thinking about You" and the dreamlike love song "Love at First Sight," were recorded in Savannah, Georgia at the First African Baptist Church, the first Black church in North America. The rest were taped on an old Ampex machine at Memphis, Tennessee's famous, Elvis Presley-haunted Sun Studios.

Picks among the latter are a marvelous, Woody Guthrie-like ballad titled "Easter Eve," the melodic, down-to-earth confessional "A Graceful Fall" (I'm sick of lying, cause it's lost its fun"); a rockabilly-accented romper called "No Better Than This," The bouncy "No One Cares About Me,' has that colloquial, Shel Silverstein lyric verve, couple with a Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two sound to it. And speaking of the late Man in Black, I'd love to have heard him tackle the sorrowful "Don't Forget About Me,' while the easy rocking "Each Day Of Sorrow" would have been a natural for Cash's Sun label-mate Carl Perkins.

Mellencamp has released 26 albums, with domestic sales exceeding 40 million units over the course of his socially active lifetime. He was one of the catalysts behind the Farm Aid concert series and organization. He's been a nascent instigator of the Americana genre with his rural-inflected musical approach. This is one of his best yet.