Back to Mono For Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett - No Better Than This Review By Michael Fremer

Equipped with John Mellencamp's then recently acquired vintage 1/4" reel-to-reel 1955 Ampex 601 mono tape recorder and a pair of iconic 50's era RCA ribbon microphones ( a 77 DX and 44 used singly) presumably supplied by producer T-Bone Burnett, the duo, accompanied by Mellencamp's wife Elaine, who shot the album's cover photo, hit the road during a break in last summer's Bob Dylan-John Mellencamp-Willie Nelson tour to record thirteen freshly penned songs Mr. Mellencamp had written over thirteen prolific days.

The two, accompanied by a recording team and an additional five musicians, recorded the tunes in three unique venues: the basement of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis (A/K/A Sun Studios) and room 404 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where producer/engineer Don Law had first recorded Robert Johnson performing "Terraplane Blues" and "Dust My Broom."

While recording in the church under the alter, the Mellencamps got Baptized. In Memphis, the group set up on the "X"s Sam Philips had placed on the floor to mark where the musicians had stood when he recorded Elvis Presley. In San Antonio, Burnett put the gear in one room and Mellencamp in another just as Law had done. Hearing that Johnson had sung into a particular corner of the room, Mellencamp did likewise.

Rather than seeking to come to terms with his own mortality as he did on his previous album, Life, Death, Love and Freedom(2008), here on his 21st album Mellencamp plays the wry old observer, isolated by time and circumstance.

"Could it be this is all there is?" he sings on the wistful, anthemic opener, advising younger listeners and perhaps his children and grandchildren to "save some time to dream." Mellencamp makes mountains of three chord ant hills.

The workingman saga "The West End" states the obvious about being stuck in a bad place, having no way out, but keeping the dream alive.

You don't have to know to guess that "Right Behind Me" was recorded in the Robert Johnson corner. It just sounds that way, backed by an acrid, bluesy fiddle and jumpy acoustic guitar. Plus, like Johnson, Mellencamp sings about being chased by the Devil.

"A Graceful Fall" with its rock-a-billy shuffle rhythm and melody line was clearly recorded at Sun. It's about being flat out of everything: luck, money, hope and the will to live, backed by a joyfully mocking backbeat.

The title tune is an uncharacteristically upbeat rock-a-billy number that looks at how the simple things in life can bring pleasure, though he does slip in the line "Give me back my youth and don't let me waste it this time."

"Thinking About You" is a wistful trifle about a long ago dissolved romance. The singer has left a phone message and he's looking for reconnection asking nothing in return. It's just Mellencamp backing himself on acoustic guitar.

Johnny Cash figures heavily in the backing and lyrics to "Coming Down the Road." It's about being lost, finding trouble and seeing oneself clearly and not liking it.

The song title "No One Cares About Me," tells you all you need to know though the melody and rhythm lets you know the guy's dealing with abandonment pretty well.

"Love at First Sight" takes you through the whole love cycle from meeting to falling in love to having children to fighting, to being abandoned, to "being hit in the head with a frying pan" and being "found dead under the bed" with a bunch of "supposes" holding the whole thing together. The singer goes through the imagined relationship from beginning to end, finally figuring "we got a little ahead of ourselves," and ending with "I suppose we're just friends."

There's plenty of self-pity and resignation in "Don't Forget About Me," which slyly pledges life to death love while snarling betrayal.

Enough play-by-play. There's really not a weak tune on this remarkable album that uses well and does not abuse the retro-technology. The recording quality is state-of-the art 1955 as is the songwriting and playing. Everything was done live. There are no overdubs and no splicing. Everyone played live and there's an organic wholeness to the outcome that you simply couldn't achieve any other way.

This phase of Mr. Mellencamp's career is probably his finest. He may have had those catchy hits during the 1980s—and they had plenty of substance even as they were chart-popular—but on this and his previous two albums, the singer has grown into himself and he brings to his aging boomer audience joy, vitality and comfort, though I think this record will find a younger audience too.

As for the sonics, they fit the music and they will please anyone who prefers local farm stand produce to Pop-Tarts.

This begs for a high quality mono 180g release cut from the original tape.