Written by Brian Newcomb
No Better Than This
John Mellencamp (Rounder)
The first time I heard John Mellencamp's voice it was the single from his debut album, under the name of Cougar. As I recall he sang, "I need a lover that won't drive me crazy, someone that'll love me and just go away." Songs like "Hurts So Good" and "Jack & Diane" followed, fun pop/rock songs with sensible pop hooks but somewhat silly lyrics. Still, by the time he was singing of "Rain on the Scarecrow" it had become clear that he was growing into an artist capable of great depth and perception.
His songs of "Small Town" life in middle America's "Pink Houses" were all about how to "R.O.C.K. In the USA," smartly mixing social consciousness about race relations, poverty and the devolution of the American dream with catchy pop-friendly sing-along anthems. "Wild Night" (the Van Morrison song) and "Peaceful World" found him celebrating life and connecting with pop radio tastes, but as he aged the recordings have gotten more and more serious—like 2003's "Trouble No More" (mostly covers of blues, folk and roots rock icons) and '08's "Life, Death, Love and Freedom"—taking on the music of his past and reflecting on the meaning of the present and the uncertainty of what is coming.
Last summer, while touring minor league ball parks in the middle slot between Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, Mellencamp was heading off to historic recording venues to lay down tracks for this new collection of 13 songs, all written in a quick two week burst of creativity the Spring of '09. Returning to work with producer T Bone Burnett (Robert Randolph, the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack), Mellencamp takes these simple songs completely old school, recording in several of roots rock and blues' more historic locations.
Nine of the thirteen tracks were recorded in Sun Studios in Memphis, where Sam Phillips made some of rock & roll's iconic hits with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Three were cut at the Savannah First African Baptist Church, designated as the first Black church in North America, pre-dating the Revolutionary War, an historic place of sanctuary and a stop on the underground railroad as escaping slaves made their way north.
That last song, "Right Behind Me," was recorded in a very special place, room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Influential blues great Robert Johnson recorded 16 classic songs in that room in 1936, reportedly playing facing into the corner. "Right Behind Me" with its talk of an inner spiritual warfare, is appropriate to the Faustian myth that shadows Johnson's short-lived career. Mellencamp sings of the tension between good and the compulsion to act selfishly: "I know Jesus, I know the devil, they're both inside of me all the time. This ain't no picnic I'm living... the devil, he thinks he's got me, but he ain't got me, no. He ain't got me, no, no, no."
"No Better Than This," reflecting a sense that life is a challenging mix, not unlike the Jack Nicholson character that said that maybe the brokenness and confusion of life is "As Good As It Gets" finds Mellencamp's grim assessment that "Each day of sorrow brings me closer to goodbye, if I wasn't so afraid, I'd lay down and die." That the song is performed with a bit of roots rock swagger, is a testament to Mellencamp's gritty charm and wit. He sings, "I ain't been baptized, I ain't got no church, no friend in Jesus…" but the press release liner notes say that before they set up to record at Savannah First, both Mellencamp and his wife Elaine were baptized there. This suggests that he's finding that there's more to this life than meets the eye.
Recorded with studious commitment to capturing the moment, using old tape technology, recording live takes in mono, Burnett and Mellencamp have eschewed the modern fetish for perfection that can leave music sounding polished but soulless. Besides Mellencamp and Burnett, longtime friend Andy York and the inimitable Marc Ribot play guitars, creating a lose, folksy feel depending on the requirements of each track, occasionally throwing in the violin of Miriam Sturm (also from Mellencamp's band). At Sun Studios they took the positions, marked with an "X" on the floor by historic producer Sam Phillips and performed in the same formation as on Elvis' originally recordings.
Together with this great material, the recording adds to this being the best work from Mellencamp all the way back to that "Scarecrow" album, and "The Lonesome Jubilee." At 59 years of age, Mellencamp has come to terms with the complexities, the push and pull of human existence and made a truce that allows his art to deal authentically with the whole complicated mess. "No One Cares About Me' is his own "Poor Pitiful Me," "Easter Eve" is an Irish drinking story song that mixes family, lust and fighting, and in the end Mellencamp celebrates the delicate balance of "A Graceful Fall" in this "Clumsy Ol' World." Cautious but hopeful on the opening track, "Save Some Time to Dream" – the one new song he sang at Fifth Third Field in Dayton, Ohio, last summer between Willie and Dylan – which dares to believe that it's our capacity to hope, to dream that may just save us all someday.
100 Miles From Memphis
Sheryl Crow (A&M)
Not going as far back as those great seminal recordings made by Phillips at Sun Studios, Sheryl Crow is also connecting with the Memphis past on her new recording, but she's focused on that soulful R&B flavored pop that was thriving when she was growing up nearby in SouthEast Missouri. Together with producers Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley, Crow has tapped that classic groove, the haunting Hammond organ and bluesy guitar riffs, the funky rhythms punctuated by horns, and hip backing harmonies to push her past the rather melancholy vibe of the last couple albums.
Crow, to my mind, has always sounded best pushing that pop thing into rock territory, as she did on great singles like "All I Wanna Do," "Strong Enough" "My Favorite Mistake," "If It Makes You Happy," "Steve McQueen" and "Soak Up the Sun." Here she foregoes some of that rock attitude to let her soul diva persona shine through on winning tracks like "Summer Day," "Our Love Is Fading" and "Long Road Home."
On the funky cover of Terence Trent D'Arby's "Sign Your Name" she gets some help from Justin Timberlake," Rolling Stone Keith Richards duets on "Eye To Eye," and is joined by Citizen Cope on his own song, "Sideways." But the star here is her voice, these songs she co-written mostly with Bramhall and Stanley, and these great arrangements. Oh, and did I mention her voice… as always, she sounds stellar.
But for all the beauty and soul in her songs of love and loss, I'm more drawn to the message songs. In "Say What You Want," where she asks of the echo-chamber of the current American culture wars, "so much noise, so much chatter, does the truth even matter?" In a world where "ignorance is patriotic, reason is idiotic, winds of change keep on blowin', this is America, you'd never know it." But yelling at each other through microphones isn't going to increase understanding.
"Peaceful Feeling" gets back to that early 70's Sly Stone vibe where a utopian sense that if we can "dance to the music," we might be able to create a more peaceful and just world. If that's a naïve sentiment, it's at least well intentioned. And it has a groove and you can dance to it. But with "Stop," the one track she's written entirely on her own, she expresses the longing for greater connection, less commotion, more forgiveness and lovingkindness, sung in the most intimate and prayerful terms.
Before Sheryl Crow had a career, CDs and hit songs of her own, she was a studio singer and toured singing backup to some of the world's great artists: Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Don Henley and many more. As a special bonus track, she's gone back not to Memphis but to Motown for a cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," where she manages to sound uncannily familiar to Michael. "100 Miles From Memphis" is not merely a tribute to Jackson, though, it's a tribute to a time when music mattered, when singers gave us something to hold onto, when they carried us on their melodies into the promise of a new day.
The Rev. Brian Q. Newcomb is Senior Minister at David's UCC in Kettering, Ohio, and a long-time music critic published in Billboard, CCM Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others. Additional content from Brian is available in his Quincessentials blog at myUCC.