Hits Daily Double Blog Review of No Better Than This

Hits Daily Double By Roy Trakin

John Mellencamp, No Better Than This (Rounder): Don’t know what ole Johnny Cougar has to sing the blues about—what with a Hall of Fame recording career and model wife—but, thanks to the ubiquitous touch of producer T Bone Burnett, his album celebrating rock’s roots has a real feel of authenticity, above and beyond its central gimmick of recording, in mono, naturally, in such historic locales as Memphis’ Sun Studios, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah and the San Antonio hotel room where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson laid down some of his legendary tracks. “Save Some Time for Me” has the languid feel of something off the Velvets’ third album, while “The West End,” features the unmistakable gutbucket feel of guitarist Marc Ribot.

“Right Behind Me,” recorded in the same Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel once used by Johnson, reverberates with its ghostly influences, Miriam Sturm’s fiddle offering the requisite satanic chill. “You see the devil/He thinks he’s got me/But he ain’t got me/No.” There’s a Dylanesque lope to “A Graceful Fall,” with its lonesome refrain: “’Cause I’m sick of life/And it’s easy to do/When everything so hard/Has been handed to you.” The title track and the twangy “Coming Down the Road” both have a galloping rockabilly feel that befits its birth in Sam Phillips’ mythic home to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, with a nod to the uncertain present in the former: “Fill my fist full of money/In these troubled times/And let me share the water/With all, all of mankind.”

The Man in Black hovers over the everyman spirit of “No One Cares About Me,” a song that sounds like it was cut in 1955, but neatly expresses the concerns of 2010, with Ribot’s playful guitar riffs in counterpoint to the bitter lyrics: “I got laid off on account there’s no work for me/Now I’m in the unemployment line... Lost one of my boys to the drug man/It’s the only time I’ve cried in my life.” The shadow of mortality hangs over the rockabilly shuffle of “Each Day of Sorrow,” as Ribot plucks out chords over the refrain: “If I weren’t so afraid/I’d lay down and die.” “Easter Eve” feels like some mash-up of “Gates of Eden” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,”

Mellencamp channeling Mr. Z in a tale of a father and son brawling with a jealous tough guy wielding a gun, only to end up in jail, where they’re bailed out by the man’s grateful wife. “Clumsy Ol World” is a tribute to the eternal attraction of opposites, and the sometimes-messy relationships neither side can quit, delivered with the world-weary conviction of a grizzled sage. Like other recent efforts by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Brian Wilson and Peter Wolf, Mellencamp has made the kind of late-period album that justifies the auteur theory, offering a career-capping summary which spans from earliest influences to the kind of well-earned craftsmanship that looks back and forward at the same time. “Don’t forget about me,” he sings in the song of the same name.

Expect No Better Than This to be remembered come Grammy time.