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Published: 2010/08/16
by Brian Robbins

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This

Rounder Records

In the interest of complete disclosure, it needs to be said that the fact that John Mellencamp had a new album coming out didn’t exactly guarantee a lovefest from yours truly. No, it surely didn’t.

The truth is, the last time I really put an ear to any of the man’s music would’ve been back in the summer of 1982 when he went by the name John Cougar. It’s true, boys and girls: I can see my buddy and I parked off on a side road in Brooklin, ME with the doors yarned open on either side of the car, ridding our bladders of processed Ballantine Ale and screeching along with Cougar’s hit single that summer, “Hurt So Good”. Uh-huh. Yep.

And then somewhere along the way, I just simply lost interest in his music – plus, I probably got a little weirded out by the whole transition from being “John Cougar” to “John Cougar Mellencamp” (“Wait! You mean ‘Cougar’ was a stage name?”) to just plain “John Mellencamp.” (Which isn’t fair, I suppose, because I was totally forgiving about the period in the 60s and 70s where Keith Richards couldn’t seem to remember if there was an “s” on the end of his name or not. Of, course, he had a lot going on.)

So the whole point of telling you all this is making sure you realize that there was nothing automatic about me liking John Mellencamp’s new No Better Than This album. He was going to have to earn it.

Well, by Jesus, he did.

The hook was set the first time I heard a pass through the title cut. At the time, I had no idea that Mellencamp and band were standing in the recording room at Sun Studios in Memphis. And not just standing there, but standing _right on _ the frigging black Xs on the floor that Sam Phillips had put down for Elvis Presley and the boys all those years ago. And not only standing on those same Xs, but playing their guts out circled around an old 1950s-vintage RCA ribbon mic that was feeding directly into an equally-as-old Ampex 601 mono (mono, boys and girls – not stereo – mono) tape recorder that allowed for no overdubs, sweetening, mixing – no nothing.

“No Better Than This” came charging out of the gate with hardly any warning, guitars growling and snapping, upright bass slapping just as recklessly perfect as the stripped-down drum kit.

Give me twenty-five dollars, sang Mellencamp in a voice that’s seen 20,000 packs of cigarettes and a lot of life since the last time I paid attention to it – but sounded just right for the job at hand.

And drive me around downtown
Solve all my problems
Don’t let me lose what I’ve found
Give me good lovin’
And seal it with a kiss
Then drop me off where the music’s loud
But it won’t get no better than this

Mellencamp and gang powered their way through three verses, fishtailing like Neal Cassady highballing a ’49 Hudson on a back country road. He then backed off the mic and let the band just plain groove, feeding off the mojo of the room and playing the living dog snot out of their instruments in a moment that was nothing short of goddamn magic.

One more verse and the cut lurched to a smoking halt – and I knew I wanted to hear some more. And I am here to say that the rest of the album is just as good, boys and girls. Forgive me for writing ol’ John Mellencamp off all those years ago.

And the whole deal is, this isn’t just a look-at-me-getting-all-rootsy effort with a gimmicky setting and appropriate album artwork – not at all. Mellencamp has managed to do some serious channeling on No Better Than This, turning out 13 original tunes that feel like soundtracks to stories John Steinbeck never got to write about raggedy-ass faith, love, loss, and life.

Producer T Bone Burnett was Mellencamp’s partner-in-crime for this effort, knowing just how to capture the vibe of the album’s three recording locations: the aforementioned Sun Studios; the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA (a famed hole-up spot for travelers on the Underground Railroad); and Room 404 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX (where bluesman Robert Johnson laid down his first recorded tracks). Burnett also contributes some fine guitar work to No Better, along with Mellencamp’s core band of Andy York (guitar), Marc Ribot (guitar, banjo), David Roe (bass), Jay Bellerose (drums, percussion) and Miriam Sturm (violin).

All hands were definitely in sync with what Mellencamp wanted to pull off with this album, from the sweetly-frayed singalong of “Don’t Forget About Me” and the poor-boy love song “Thinking About You” to the greasy raunch of “Each Day Of Sorrow” and the smoky tango of “The West End”. “Right Behind Me” sounds like an age-old classic that Hot Tuna might have covered with Papa John Creach on fiddle, rather than something newly-written by Mellencamp. “Easter Eve” out-_Nebraska_’s Springsteen with a tale of a father and son in a hard situation. And the album-closing “Clumsy Ol’ World” takes things out with a dopey-yet-wise air that’s a little bit John Prine, a little bit Woody Guthrie – and totally gee-whiz heartwarming.

I’m not sure what defines “Americana” these days – the marketing and promotions folks have yanked and tugged the word so out of shape to fit their own agendas that it almost ceases to have meaning. But if heart, soul, sweat, tears, and blood – along with vibe, groove, kick, honk, and holler – account for anything, No Better Than This deserves to be on this year’s Americana “best-of” lists, for sure. Right at the top.

Sing it, Mr. Mellencamp:

Give me back my youth
And don’t let me waste it this time
Stand me up at the golden gates
At the front of the line
Let me lie in the sunshine
Covered in the morning mist
Then show me something I ain’t never seen
But it won’t get no better than this

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