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Album review: John Mellencamp's 'No Better Than This'

August 16, 2010 |  7:29 pm

JOHN_MELLENCAMP_240_ The John Mellencamp of “No Better Than This” is not the John Mellencamp that most would expect. The artist seems to know as much: “I caught a glimpse of myself as others see me, and I wasn’t the feller that I thought I’d be,” he sings on “Coming Down the Road.” His trademark scratched vocals are there, but the backdrop is intimate, relaxed and more than a little quaint.

"No Better Than This" unfolds with a casual shagginess, the sound of long-lost first takes from another era.The album was produced by T Bone Burnett, who consistently proves that he has a knack for turning vintage blues and folk sounds into something rather raw and intricate, and recorded with archaic techniques — in mono, with one microphone and straight to tape. Add the detail that Mellencamp worked only at locations steeped in rock myth — Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., and a San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson once recorded — and “No Better Than This” risks being written off as retro gimmick.

Instead, such tracks as “Right Behind Me” go for the throat, with each slow pluck of the guitar haunting the shadows, and Mellencamp singing his voice hoarse. For much of the record, Mellencamp is eyeing death and laughing at the devil or, as in the back-porch-folk of “Easter Eve,” bonding with his son by brawling with strangers. A little cranky, but far more carefree Mellencamp slips into a rocking chair groove on the lost-lover lament of “Don’t Forget About Me” and concedes that he’s “spotty at best.” Over the course of his 30-plus-year career, sure, but not here.

— Todd Martens

John Mellencamp
“No Better Than This”
(Rounder Records)
Three and a half stars (Out of four)


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