OnMilwaukee.com: No Better Than This Review

OnMilwaukee.com By Drew Olson

If they're being honest, most male rock stars will say that they got into the business -- initially -- to meet girls and make money.

Once they've achieved those initiatives and reached a comfortable level on the ladder of success, the goals change. Musicians want to be respected. They want to remain relevant. And, above all, they want their music to be heard.

That's not easy these days.

In an era of iPods and "American Idol" and the erosion of rock radio, it can be hard for established artists to receive airplay and create awareness.

Four years ago, John Mellencamp found himself in that situation. The Indiana icon, who had released a string of albums that generated decent reviews, a few minor hits and small sales, licensed a song, "Our Country," to Chevy. The Silverado commercials were played so regularly that even his die-hard fans reached for remote when they aired.

Mellencamp could have given up. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, he could have resigned himself to a lucrative life of touring as a greatest hits jukebox. He could have pulled a Neil Young stunt and reinvented himself (anybody remember "Trans" and the Shocking Pink?)
He could have simply screamed from the mountaintops.

Thankfully, Mellencamp chose a quieter route.

"I am done being a rock star," Mellencamp told Rolling Stone last month. "I have no interest in that, in having the biggest concerts. I have only one interest: to have fun while we're doing this and maybe have something that somebody might discover."

Mellencamp's 21st studio effort, "No Better Than This," which was released Tuesday on Rounder Records, is a stark, introspective throwback that is an impressively modest and more than mildly impressive collection of folk, blues and gospel with the sonic feel of an old field recording.

Mellencamp recorded the songs with producer T-Bone Burnett in three historical settings: the First African Baptist Church -- an Underground Railroad sanctuary for slaves in Savannah, Ga.; the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis and Johnny Cash made magic; and, the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded.

Burnett, who has collaborated with Mellencamp in the past, used a single microphone and a 50-year-old Ampex reel-to-reel recorder in order to capture the sessions.

"Everything was cut live with no overdubs or studio nothing!" Mellencamp said on his Web site. "These are real songs being performed by real musicians -- an unheard-of process in today's world. Real music, for real people!"

Though his song credits include hokey, hooky pop songs like "I Need a Lover" and "Hurts So Good," Mellencamp also is credited in some circles as an alt-country godfather of sorts, because records like "Scarecrow" and "The Lonesome Jubilee" merged rock and Appalachian folk. Though stripped down, the dusty vibe on those works permeates "No Better Than This."

On "Coming Down the Road," Mellencamp lays it bare:

"I caught a glimpse of myself as others see me
and I wasn't the feller that I thought I'd be."

Then there is the equally bleak "No One Cares About Me," a first-person lament of unemployment and disenfranchisement set against a sunny shuffle that recalls Carl Perkins or Elvis' sideman Scotty Moore.

The lyrics are austere and honest, the arrangements are elegantly simple. Taken in total, this album brings to mind classic tracks by Roy Orbison, Cash, John Prine or Bruce Springsteen circa "Nebraska." You can listen to it anywhere and feel like you're alone in a small room lit by a naked bulb.

Though he may not generate much radio play or commercial cash with this collection, Mellencamp, who will appear at Farm Aid 25 Oct. 2 at Miller Park, has done something more lasting and important. After selling roughly 40 million records, he's created a defining work that will win over adventurous new fans and remind the old ones what they liked about him in the first place.