Wilkes Barre, PA - The Weekender 4 Star No Better Than This Review

The Weekender By Kevin Krieger

After 21 albums, a Grammy, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, John Mellencamp has set a new artistic standard for himself by ditching the gritty heartland rock and releasing a recording that pays tribute to classic American music forms without resorting to mere imitation. All 13 tracks on “No Better Than This” were recorded on a 55-year-old Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder with a single vintage microphone in the center of the room. No overdubs, no studio tricks. Just a small group of musicians crowding around a microphone, looking to replicate the same feeling that fueled America’s early musical roots.

Bypassing his state-of-the-art studio in Indiana, Mellencamp opted to record in three historically significant locations. From Sun Studios in Memphis to the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., to the same San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson laid down his legendary blues riffs, it’s easy to feel the size of the room and the position of the players around the mic.

Keep in mind, Mellencamp is the first artist to enter the Top 10 with a mono recording since James Brown in 1964, so this is obviously not a CD that will rattle the subwoofers. The low-fi effect is most apparent on the solo acoustic numbers like “Thinking About You” and “Love At First Sight,” and his raspy whiskey-and-cigarettes voice still permeates the dusty air on the rockabilly title track and the country-tinged “No One Cares About Me.”

Perhaps if you doubled the tempo on the lead track, “Save Some Time To Dream,” it might sound a lot like Mellencamp’s early ’80s work, but there’s disappointment ahead for fans of “Jack And Diane” and “Authority Song.” The same rebellious and wandering spirit runs through the new material, but “No Better Than This” is truly an intimate experience, both for Mellencamp and his audience.

What all this boils down to is a recording that’s both challenging and rewarding. It’s challenging because the rawness of the music is not something we’re accustomed to in this age of Pro Tools and Auto-Tune. But the rewarding part comes with the honesty with which the artist presents himself. “No Better Than This” is Mellencamp’s history lesson for the adventurous listener willing to follow him down the musical paths cut by legends like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.