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(Columbia 90133 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/26/2003)
It's interesting to consider the way various artists with long careers evolve with time. Most, as a rule, tend to get more sophisticated with their music, more elaborate with their presentation. Think of Elvis Presley and his journey from Memphis to Vegas. Other artists, who tend to run out of new material find themselves playing their old hits on the nostalgia circuit. But a few artists remain true to themselves, pursuing the music for its own sake, working on being creative, exploring new sounds, maintaining an edge, or in the case of this week's album, going back to one's musical roots with a simpler sound.
Trouble No More is at least the 20th album by John Mellencamp, whose nearly thirty-year career has seen him near the top of the charts for several years during the 1980s. His rootsy sound, often described as "all-American rock from the Midwest heartland," has been winning the praise of both music critics and generations of fans. Though his new recording is not far from the sound with which his fans may be familiar, this CD is definitely a departure, with almost all cover material, performed in stripped-down, almost Delta-style arrangements, plus one new song that has already been the subject of a good deal of controversy, causing this quintessential American rocker to be branded with the old McCarthy-ite smear "un-American" by certain political groups for his daring to question the war in Iraq.
Mellencamp's career did not immediately start out as being the songwriter for the common man. He recalls being signed by a record label in the early 1970s, which named him "Johnny Cougar" mainly because of his looks. Once he was signed to make a record, then the songwriting and even the musicianship came later. But by the 1980s, he was creating the hits, including Pink Houses, and Lonely Ol' Night. But with that success, he was also going the classic folksinger's route of putting some messages in his songs, and getting involved with various causes, such as partnership with Willie Nelson on the Farm Aid concerts to raise money for family farmers. In 1989, we created the song Jackie Brown, a stinging indictment of poverty in the land of opportunity. During the 1990s, he created songs that took on racism.
Mellencamp has left his record company, but for his last release for them, he created a fascinating record with only one new original song, the aforementioned To Washington, and a collection of earthy performances of older material ranging from a Robert Johnson blues classic to a Hoagy Carmichael ballad to a schlocky old rock & roll tear-jerker to a contemporary piece by Lucinda Williams. The accompaniment for the most part is bluesy resonator guitars, plus mandolins and fiddles and stripped down drum kits.
He is joined by a group which includes Andy York on the National resonator guitars, as well as some bass; Mike Wanshick on mandolin and guitars,; Dane Clark on percussion; Miriam Sturm on the violin; Michael Ramos on keyboards; and Tony Myers and John Gunnell on the basses.
In a recent interview, Mellencamp commented on how much fun making this CD was. He obviously enjoys the material, and the atmosphere is decidedly informal. It is as if the very Midwestern Mellencamp took up musical residence on the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Delta.
The CD leads off with the Robert Johnson clues classic Stones in My Passway, which establishes the lowdown-in-the-swamp sound of much of this recording. It's a very respectable reading of the song, with some just electric guitar and drums providing the backing. <<>>
Also very much in the low-down-and-dirty blues vein in the Son House song Death Letter. Again, the musical setting is very much stripped down. Mellencamp and colleagues impart an appropriately ominous mood to the song. <<>> Though later, the instrumentation picks up steam as more players enter the picture. <<>>
From blues the album goes to classic folk. Mellencamp and company perform the Woody Guthrie song Johnny Hart, based on an even older folk song. The group obviously seem to be enjoying themselves. <<>>
The CD is not all old-time blues and folk songs. An interesting departure is a version of a Hoagy Carmichael composition from Tin Pan Alley. Baltimore Oriole is given a rather unusual treatment, a curious blend of swamp blues with hints of tango. The result is quite fascinating. <<>>
Also not from the blues or folk world is the Lucinda Williams song Lafayette, about a Louisiana town, with the sound evoking images of the bayous. Mellencamp and company do perhaps their most distinctive arrangement on the CD. <<>>
Mellencamp's affinity for down-and-out characters on either side of the law is apparent in his version of the Memphis Minnie song Joliet Bound, a reference to a prison in Illinois. The mandolin adds to the old-time feel. <<>>
One track that left me scratching my head was Mellencamp's version of the old Fifties rock & roll ballad The End of the World, about as un-authentic song as you one can find. When Mellencamp and his colleagues try to give an earthy, bluesy performance to this overly sentimental elevator-music staple song, the it's almost embarrassing. <<>>
The CD ends with To Washington, the song that got Mellencamp onto the right-wing's enemies list along with the Dixie Chicks. Even before the CD was released, Mellencamp put the song on his website, where it was circulated widely, and began to attract ire of the war proponents. The song is in many ways an archetypical folk song, based on a piece originally written about the assassination of President McKinley, and then reworked with different lyrics by Woody Guthrie. It's now put in a contemporary, topical context by Mellencamp. He also performs it in classic folksinger style. Regardless of one's politics, the piece is one of the definite highlights of the CD for its sincerity and authenticity. <<>>
After a nearly thirty-year recording career, John Mellencamp said in a recent interview that is not sure what he will be doing now that he left his record label, which was pressuring him not to include his song To Washington. An artist like Mellencamp can't be held down for long. For what is likely to be his major-label swan song, Mellencamp created an enjoyable and in some ways surprising recording of some genuine Americana, from traditional to contemporary, served up in a musical setting as at-home in the Mississippi Delta as in Mellencamp's Bloomington, Indiana, base. Mellencamp proves himself quite respectable in his treatment of the old songs, sounding authentically bluesy, even on the songs which did not start out in the blues.
Sonically, we'll give the album about a "B." The recording has an ambience that conveys the down-home aspect of the music, but the acoustic bass, and even the electric bass often get lost in the mix. And like most major-label recordings, it's pumped up through excessive audio compression to be too loud for semi-acoustic music.
John Mellencamp may have been targeted by certain political groups as "un-American" for his topical song. Mellencamp likes to point out that the same groups also tried to tar former president and Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter with the same epithet. And nothing could be more in the American tradition than a collection of good old folk and blues songs, and a old-fashioned political protest song.
(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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