Chicago Sun Times: No Better Than This Review

Chicago Sun Times By Bobby Reed

A sturdy, dusty thread connects Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to John Prine to John Mellencamp. As the Indiana tunesmith’s music has moved in a folkier direction, Mellencamp has started to sound even more like his influences.

His new roots-music collection, “No Better Than This,” is comprised of 13 original songs, most of which intentionally evoke the past. The story song “Easter Eve” is a cinematic, acoustic folk ballad similar to early Dylan tracks, and it involves a barroom brawl, a foul-mouthed scoundrel and an intriguing plot twist.

One track that seems to be set in the present day, “Thinking About You,” is an emotional rumination on re-connecting with people from one’s past. With its tender examination of the human condition, it has a distinct Prine vibe, as does the affectionate closing track, “Clumsy Ol’ World.”

The album’s backstory is just as interesting as the music itself. Mellencamp composed these songs in 13 days while on tour. Producer T Bone Burnett recorded the material in mono with a 1955 tape recorder and a vintage microphone. The recording sessions included a small band and occurred in three locations — Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., where Elvis Presley was discovered; the First African Baptist Church (constituted in 1777) in Savannah, Ga., and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson recorded.

These historic, Southern locations certainly affected the lyrics Mellencamp wrote, and based on his bluesy drawl in the character study “The West End,” they also affected the manner in which he sang. Miriam Sturm’s lonesome fiddle provides a memorable counterpoint to Mellencamp’s vocal on “Right Behind Me,” but it’s a bit odd to hear him sing a lyric such as “She says I don’t care nothin’ about her/ But I gots to tell her I still do,” even if it is fitting verbiage for the song’s narrator.

A mixture of blues, folk and rockabilly, this album contains a few slight songs that come across as genre exercises, like “No One Cares About Me.” Still, the album’s highlights make it a strong addition to Mellencamp’s oeuvre.