No Better Than This Review By Darryl Morden

Family Editor John Mellencamp follows up his opus retrospective from earlier this year, On The Rural Route 760, with a distinctive debut on Rounder Records, No Better Than This. At a time when some recordings are excessively produced down the syllable with Pro Tools, Auto-Tune tricks and such, he’s made an album in the style of more than a half-century ago and in mono, not stereo. In fact, it was the first mono album to debut in the Billboard Top Ten since James Brown’s Pure Dynamite! Live At The Royal reached #10 in April 1964 (thank you, Paul Grein of Yahoo! Music).

Producer T-Bone Burnett recorded Mellencamp and his band live, all together, on a 55-year-old Ampex tape recorder and a vintage microphone at three historic locales: Sun Studio in Memphis, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and so many others recorded; the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, which was a haven for runaway slaves during the Civil War and considered America’s first black church; and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where legendary blues man Robert Johnson recorded. Surely they soaked up the lingering sounds and ghosts too, no doubt.

The set ranges from blues and folk to gospel, country, and even some rockabilly. Mellencamp has been dour overall in recent years compared to his hit-making career of the ’80s and early ’90s. Though there are some powerful and, yes, often bleak songs here, musing on economic crush and mortality, including “The West End” and “A Graceful Fall,” that despair is contrasted by hope found in songs such as the title track, the simple truths of ”Save Some Time to Dream,” the homespun “Thinking About You,” and “Clumsy Ol’ World,” with Mellencamp showing his sense of irony about life’s jokes still thrives on.

As with many of his peers, John Mellencamp knows even his catchiest music isn’t the stuff of Top 40/CHR radio today and hasn’t been for years. And he doesn’t care. Neither should we. With No Better Than This, he carries on a personal vision that runs deeper than some pop flavor of the moment ready to turn themselves into a commodity. In fact, he’s be doing that even when he was a pop flavor himself in the ’80s. He brings a truth that can disturb, comfort, but most of all move the listener. And that’s what really counts – and always has — more than how many units are moved.