John Mellencamp • No Better Than This

Rounder Records 116613284-2
CD
2010

Music

Sound

by Eric Hetherington | September 8, 2010

o Better Than This is John Mellencamp's 27th album, but it was recorded in a way that pre-dates the start of his career in music. Using a 55-year-old mono Ampex 601 tape recorder and a vintage RCA ribbon microphone, Mellencamp and his band recorded these 13 songs with producer T-Bone Burnett in three historic locations: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, Sun Studios in Memphis, and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues legend Robert Johnson once recorded.

The songs range over familiar territory for Mellencamp -- blues, country, rock'n'roll -- and display some obvious influences. On the opening track, "Save Some Time to Dream," Mellencamp sounds like Bruce Springsteen, while "Easter Eve" finds him channeling Bob Dylan. On "The West End," he attempts a hoarse Tom Waits-like vocal, and "Don't Forget About Me" recalls Johnny Cash in both style and subject. The songs are interesting, but they never rise to the quality of the best of their obvious influences. The album is not a disappointment so much as it fails to stand out. The best songs, such as "Right Behind Me," "Love At First Sight" and "Easter Eve," don't demand constant re-listening, but they are catchy enough the first time around.

Because of the variety of recording locations and minimalist equipment, the sound quality and acoustic signatures vary from song to song. The opening two tracks have a muddy bass and sound like they were recorded in a room with bad acoustics. Later songs, such as the title track, have more up-front vocals and a traditional studio sound. An obsessive listener could probably map the songs to their recording locations, but the differences are not enough to draw attention away from the songs themselves.

There is an immediacy to these recordings, as if the band was more interested in getting the music to the people rather than developing and perfecting it. In that regard, No Better Than This sounds more like a record from a young band, not a polished gem from an established and successful artist. There are no immediate hits on the album, perhaps an intentional byproduct of Mellencamp's process of composition. (He states that the songs on this album were written in just 13 days). The album shares an aesthetic with Johnny Cash's American Recordings and Bob Dylan's recent albums, but it lacks the gravitas and sonics of those releases. No Better Than This preaches to the choir: Mellencamp's fans, and fans of Americana in general, will enjoy it, but it is unlikely to make any converts.

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