Country Standard Time: No Better Than This Review

Country Standard Time By Michael Berick

John Mellencamp continues his latest career resurgence, taking the already lean, steely-eyed roots rock from his prior effort "Life, Death, Love & Freedom and paring it done to the bone. This disc definitely has an interesting back story. Reteaming with "Life, Death" producer T-Bone Burnett, Mellencamp recorded this rather on the fly, during his days off from his tour last year with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Mellencamp did these 13 songs in just 13 days, recording in a Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., in Memphis' Sun Studios and the San Antonio hotel room where Don Law recorded Robert Johnson. What sounds like a conceptual exercise actually results in a richly rewarding album.

These raw, unvarnished performances hold a powerful quality. Mellencamp has sounded technically better in the past, but probably never as honest or heartfelt. His rough and growly vocals project an appealing one-take vibe, making the viewers feel like they are sitting in on a late night jam session.

He starts off the disc on a philosophical note with Save Some Time To Dream, where he offers some life lesson, like "save some time for those you love" and "some time to live," while wondering "could there nothing else at all." The question about the afterlife resurfaces in the darker hued A Graceful Fall. In his bluesy rocker, he sounds like a bar stool poet proclaiming "I'm sick of life cuz it's has lost its fun/I will see you in the next world/If there is really one." Similarly, both Don't Forget About Me and the Springsteen-ish No One Cares About Me stand as laments from a man looking at his life and trying to find his place in the world.

This sense of reflection takes a gentler tone in Thinking About You. After stating "it's not my nature to be nostalgic at all," he proceeds to look back at an old relationship in this simple, but thoroughly touching love ode. Both this song and the murder ballad, Easter Eve bares some influence from his old tour mate Dylan. There also are traces of another Midwestern troubadour, John Prine, both in Mellencamp's singing style and storytelling. The closer Clumsy Ol' World, in particular, suggests Prine's serio-comic look at marriage.

Although the majority of the album favors stripped-down, acoustic-based performances, Mellencamp does rock out on occasion; however, it is not the radio-friendly rock of Jack And Diane or Hurt So Good. Instead he mines a sound that harkens back to the early days of rock 'n' roll. No Better Than This is foot-stomping twang-a-billy, while Coming Down The Road sounds like a meeting of Johnny Cash and John Fogerty (another former Mellencamp tour mate).

A wonderfully rough-hewn piece of work, this reveals that Mellencamp may be getting older, but he is still creating vibrant, compelling music.