John Mellencamp, No Better Than This

Wayne Robins

By Wayne Robins

on 04.06.11 in Reviews

One microphone. Full takes, no edits, recorded on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder from the 1950s at a church, a hotel room and a shrine, on days off from the 2009 summer tour of minor league baseball parks on which he and Willie Nelson supported Bob Dylan. Even with vinyl making a comeback and lo-fi in vogue, John Mellencamp keeps it simple on "No Better Than This," a rootsy collection of 13 new songs that offers a distinctive new perspective from old, weird America.

Offering a distinctive new perspective from old, weird America

Three songs were recorded in the church — the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, which really is the first African-American Church in the United States (opened circa 1775). "Love At First Sight" and "Clumsy Ol' World" (about a perfectly mismatched couple) are among most playful of Mellencamp's new folk songs, while "Thinking About You" shows the influence of retro romantic 21st-century Dylan albums like Love and Theft. The hotel room song, "Right Behind Me," recounts an ancient struggle between god vs. the devil, and why not? The room was 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Robert Johnson recorded "Cross Road Blues" and many other tracks that made him king of the delta blues, during three days in 1936.

No Better Than This

John Mellencamp

The shrine is Sun Studios in Memphis, rock 'n' roll ground most hallowed and the site where the nine other songs were recorded. These tracks range from the subdued yet hope-filled "Save Some Time to Dream" to the hard steel twang of the ghost tale "The West End" (which could have come from the 2003 documentary about the backwoods South, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus). There is, of course, some rousing rockabilly from these Sun sessions, especially "Coming Down the Road" and "Each Day of Sorrow," on which the apparitions take the shape of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Johnny Burnette. Holding it all together is the production of T-Bone Burnett, who knows how to make a single plucked guitar string fill a room and who captures all the energy and vitality Mellencamp and his lean band bring to this freewheeling project.

Recorded, by the way, in mono.