Friday, September 3, 2010

Capturing a Spirit: John Mellencamp's No Better Than This

When I first read about John Mellencamp's No Better Than This last fall in Billboard Magazine, I was pleased to learn two things: First, that Mellencamp was recording a new album with producer T-Bone Burnett; and second, that it was going to be produced in mono.
Burnett has a knack for presenting older, familiar voices in a new way. As Robert Plant said about his Raising Sand recording with Alison Krauss, it's akin to having the Mississippi swamp mixed with the English countryside. Clearly, he was on to something. This time, Burnett lets the studio do the work for him by putting John Mellencamp in the same room with the band using one microphone and a mono tape deck (a quarter-inch Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape machine in fact). The result is as sublime as anything Burnett has produced and Mellencamp has written. The songs ring out of the misty swamp like candles in a dark room.

No Better Than This is an album of new songs from John Mellencamp recorded in three distinct locations: The Memphis Sun Studios, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia and in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. The latter was the place where Robert Johnson performed his classic sides in one room, while being recorded in the next by Don Law. But while Mellencamp and Burnett seek to create an old sound, they succeed in capturing a spirit and that spirit is the simple joy of making music in one, singular place. No multi-tracking; no split recording in different studios and no over-dubs. Just turn on the amp and play. For this reason alone, No Better Than This is a welcome addition to the over-produced schlock that's become more popular on the music scene in recent years.

But the litmus test is the songs themselves and I'm pleased to report that these tracks are as intimate and rockin' as anything Mellencamp has ever written. The songs are a sweet mix of hope ("Save Some Time to Dream") and love ("Thinking About You") and sex ("No Better Than This'). Mellencamp and Burnett chose not to ignore the musical and historical legacy of these songs so on "Coming Down The Road" we have a Johnny Cash sound (c.1950) recorded in the famous Sun Studios where Elvis debuted along with Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

The most poignant number on the album was recorded in the First African Baptist Church, in Savannah, famous for helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. It is here where Mellencamp flies solo with two songs, "Think About You" and "Love At First Sight." The former is a ballad to a lover from many years ago and it's charming without being pretentious or nostalgic. The feeling reappears on "Love At First Sight," a love song about imagining a life with someone you met, married, had a family with and then separated. As Mellencamp laments, "Remember what they say/Cause it happens every day/I believe in love at first sight/So there I said it: Good Night."

The technical "novelty" of recording an album in mono is an old innovation whose time has long passed to the modern ear, but what it lacks in fidelity, it makes up for in clarity of thought and transparency. You can't hide behind over-dubs and digital manipulation like most of today's so-called Pop Stars. Besides being an honest. well-produced record, No Better Than This is a work of deep inspiration.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

1 comment:

  1. You were right. It is really good. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.