Chicago Tribune: No Better Than This 3 out of 4 Stars Review

The Chicago Tribune 3 out of 4 Stars Review - By Greg Kot.

John Mellencamp has revitalized his career in recent years by teaming up with T Bone Burnett, a producer who prefers to document performances with grime intact rather than doctor them up into shiny new toys for radio programmers. After collaborating on the 2008 release “Life Death Love and Freedom,” Mellencamp and Burnett take that no-frills approach to an extreme on “No Better Than This” (Rounder), the latest album in a career that spans 35 years and 40 million domestic record sales. Whatever you think of Mellencamp, this is the kind of record that will compel a re-evaluation, an out-of-leftfield shot that mostly works because of its modesty, shagginess and humor – qualities not normally associated with the singer in the past.

The album was recorded in three historically resonant locations: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., a sanctuary for runaway slaves before emancipation; Sun Studios in Memphis, one of the birthplaces of rock ‘n’ roll; and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded.

Burnett set up a single microphone and a vintage reel-to-reel recorder in each of these rooms to capture Mellencamp and his band as they performed 13 original songs drawing on blues, folk, gospel and rockabilly. The mono recordings may initially sound like dusty transmissions from another planet to ears attuned to highly compressed modern productions, which create an unnatural relationship between voice and instruments. On “No Better Than This,” Mellencamp’s nicotine rasp sits inside a cocoon of stringed instruments and percussion; the sound field is a democracy of instruments, the mix a warm blend of complementary sounds that is a step away from a spontaneous field recording.

Mellencamp’s songs generally avoid the type of ponderous big statements that can undercut his music in favor of blues- and folk-based stories populated with devils, death, mayhem, but also a touch of mirth. Mortality underlines everything, but the music brims with life: loose, a bit ramshackle, as if refusing to take itself too seriously. The lack of conventional production gimmicks telescopes the songs and the performances: Miriam Sturm’s violin flirts with mischief and anxiety on “Right Behind Me”; “No Better Than This” channels the chugging clickety-clack of a vintage Johnny Cash single; “Thinking About You” is one of those little charmers about everyday life that could’ve sprung from John Prine’s imagination; and the epic narrative “Easter Eve” manages to sound both rambunctious and easygoing. No wonder the album winds down with barely audible chuckle.