Tuesday, August 17, 2010

John Mellencamp released No Better Than This

No Better Than This

John Mellencamp

Released: August 17, 2010

Peak: 10 US, 138 UK, -- CN, 83 AU

Sales (in millions): --

Genre: rock/Americana


Song Title (Writers) [time] (date of single release, chart peaks)

  1. Save Some Time to Dream [4:30]
  2. The West End [3:58]
  3. Right Behind Me [4:00]
  4. A Graceful Fall [3:20]
  5. No Better Than This [3:12] (6/28/10, --)
  6. Thinking About You [3:28]
  7. Coming Down the Road [4:45]
  8. No One Cares About Me [6:11]
  9. Love at First Sight [4:37]
  10. Don’t Forget About Me [3:14]
  11. Each Day of Sorrow [2:36]
  12. Easter Eve [6:30]
  13. Clumsy Ol’ World [3:29]

All songs written by John Mellencamp.

Total Running Time: 53:50

The Players:

  • John Mellencamp (vocals, guitar)
  • Andy York, T-Bone Burnett (guitars)
  • Marc Ribot (guitar, banjo)
  • David Roe (bass)
  • Jay Bellerose (drums, percussion)
  • Miriam Sturm (violin)


3.718 out of 5.00 (average of 25 ratings)

Quotable: “Arguably the singer-songwriter’s best LP since his Eighties heyday.” – Will Hermes, Rolling Stone

Awards: (Click on award to learn more).

About the Album:

“After struggling in recent years to match lyrical messages to complementary music and produce an engaging listening experience, John Mellencamp solves his puzzle on this 13-song collection of folk, blues and rockabilly sounds. While his 2008 album carried the title of Life, Death, Love and Freedom, death smothered all competing themes.” DL

Mellencamp calls his newest effort, No Better Than This, “his most rebellious record ever.” RL Of course, “it’s not like his long career has been filled with crazy detours into free form jazz and electronica…About the most risky thing he’s done is offer up one of his better late career songs, ‘Our Country’, to a truck commercial, which probably paid off handsomely in his bank account, but soured a lot of people on his music because of the tune’s ubiquity and jingoistic vibe.” RL

Still, this is “a defining album that resets his creative clock and reminds everyone how great a songwriter and musician that he really is. Because this…is truly brilliant and it’s as good as anything he’s ever released, which is saying a lot. Dylan had Time Out of Mind, Springsteen had The Rising, and any number of Mellencamp’s less popular peers…have all made albums that reinvigorated their relevancy and made us return to their newer work hungry for more.” RL This is “revelatory and free, the sound of a man who’s unshackled from commercial considerations or outside influences. And ironically, it’s a record that could’ve been made in 1954, which means it comes out of the speakers sounding remarkably fresh and new.” RL

This album “continues Stage 3 of a career in which Mr. Mellencamp has been a hit-making bad-boy rocker and then a concerned (and still hit-making) heartland Everyman. Since 2003, when he made Trouble No More, a collection of old blues and folk songs,” JP he “has moved steadily away from the studio-slick punch of his heyday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the rootsier approach he has taken of late has served him well” JK as he “continues his evolution into a modern-day folk hero.” JK He has become “a grizzled codger taking the long view, pondering mortality and the meaning of life.” JP While “his songs have always conveyed a rural-minded brand of populism,” JK now Mellencamp “relies on refrains rather than choruses and writes plenty of verses, more like traditional ballads (or Woody Guthrie songs) than pop hits.” JP He is effectively “channeling spirits and stepping into period styles. They fit him perfectly.” WH His “new release an old-school masterpiece” RL notable for “its consistency and artistic commitment.” RL

“Considering the title, Mellencamp has made a remarkably dark record,” WK in which he “deftly addresses good times, bad times and the intervening range of hope and despair” DL with “testimonials about being a man alone, abandoned by lovers and family and unsure of faith.” JP “What’s most striking about the writing on these tracks is their economy. Throughout his career, Mellencamp has shown a weakness for ambling digressions and overworked metaphors. Here, he doesn’t mince words.” JK

“But where Trouble was a first brush with history Mellencamp trying to make it come to him here he meets that history on its home ground” WH by recording parts of the album “in hallowed rock and blues locations.” JP “The pilgrimages didn’t humble Mr. Mellencamp. They spurred him to compete with history.” JP

Producer T Bone Burnett, who also worked with Mellencamp on Life, Death, Love and Freedom, JP “has said that the album was ‘haunted’ by the spirits of these makeshift studios, and it's an apt description.” JK He told the Express-News, “The fact he chose these historic locations is a big plus. The stories that have come out of the sessions are extraordinary. The First African Baptist Church,” WK where three songs were recorded, JP “was started in 1775. It was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and central to the civil rights movement.” WK The Savanannah, Ga. Church “calls itself “the oldest black church in North America’.” JP

Another nine songs were recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee JP where Mellencamp “went for bass-slapping, reverb-guitar rockabilly.” JP Mellencamp said, “‘Everything was set up exactly as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley recorded. They had ‘X’ marks made with electrical tape on the floor where Elvis and his musicians stood and where the instruments were placed, because Sam Philips walked around the room and decided where everything sounded best.’” WK

On “the bluesy cautionary” RL Right Behind Me, Mellencamp “cleverly punctuates its heady spiritual questions with a simple answer of ‘No,’” JK in room 414 of San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, the exact room “where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded blues staples like ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Cross Road Blues’” WK in November 1936. Mellencamp “sang (as Johnson did) about being pursued by the Devil, with ragtimey guitar plunking and bluesy violin,” JP courtesy of “Miriam Sturm’s jazzy Hot Club fiddle.” WH As Mellencamp said, “I wrote it just for this room. I could have done this in my studio. But I want to do it this way.” WK He “wanted to record at the now-derelict Brunswick Records Building in Dallas, where Robert Johnson cut his final sessions in 1937, but the current owner of the building denied him permission to record there.” WK

The album was recorded “in mono, the same manner as the classic folk and blues recordings of the 1930s and ‘40s,” WK or “the sonic equivalent of making photos with a pinhole camera in a megapixel world.” DL This meant using “using a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine and only one microphone, requiring all the musicians to gather together around” WK “a single vintage ribbon mic.” WH Those players “include ex-Tom Waits guitarist Mark Ribot; Jay Bellerose, whose rhythms shaped Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand; and stand-up bassist David Roe, who played with Johnny Cash at the end of his life.” WH

As Mellencamp says, “Everything was cut live with no overdubs or studio nothing! These are real songs being performed by real musicians – an unheard-of process in today’s world.” WK “The fact that it’s in mono could come across as a silly reach for lo-fi cred,” RL but “it makes sense that music this personal and intimate be recorded this way, with a group of musicians standing together in a room, playing at the same time without the benefit of overdubs and studio trickery.” RL “The decision is logical for these songs and feels less like a statement and more like a commonsense artistic decision.” RL “These are songs that are meant to sound like they have some dust on them.” RL “You don’t want to hear something as dark and spooky as ‘The West End’ in pristine stereo, just as you can’t imagine the gentle Thinking About You spruced up and blasting out of the speakers.” RL

“Mellencamp’s songs show a writer still on a hot streak after 2008’s Burnett-produced Life, Death, Love and Freedom, arguably the singer-songwriter’s best LP since his Eighties heyday. He shoots for timeless here” WH “working in classic idioms – rockabilly on the title cut, Johnny Cash-like vintage rocking on Coming Down the Road, John Prine folk on the sly, funny ‘Love at First Sight’ and the closer Clumsy Ol’ World – that are familiar and comfortable.” RL “Aside from an allusion to an answering machine on the Woody Guthrie-style ‘Thinking About You,’ these songs could have all been written 50 years ago or more.” WH “The record also happens to be one of the most focused, tightly written sets of Mellencamp’s career.” JK

Save Some Time to Dream is a gentle folk sermon with a dash of existential doubt.” WH Mellencamp debuted it “on May 17, 2009 at a political fundraiser for President Barack Obama at the Westin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. ‘It’s about individual freedom and thought--and controlling our own lives,’ Mellencamp said.” WK He also performed the song “solo on acoustic guitar throughout much of his 2009 summer tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson” WK and “at several other concerts, including Farm Aid 2009 and a tribute to Myles Brand at Indiana University. He has also completed a painting entitled ‘Save Some Time to Dream.’” WK

Mellencamp’s characters weather “betrayal and solitude in No One Cares About Me and in” JP “the country-inflected Don’t Forget About Me,” JK “which promises undying love while hurling accusations.” JP The latter offers “one of the most effective vocal turns of his career” JK while the former is “a sturdy folkie” DL “over an old-timey hillbilly strut” < sup>WH in which Mellencamp sings “about a guy out of work, ditched by his wife, mourning a father, a son and his only friend.” WH

The characters contemplate “suicide, in A Graceful Fall and Each Day of SorrowJP, although Mellencamp is adept at “undercutting self-pity with springy Memphis backbeats.” JP The former is “a stumpy waltz” WH in which Mellencamp takes on the voice of “a relaxed balladeer.” DL It is sung from the perspective of someone who is “penniless, ‘sick of life’ and pondering the afterlife, ‘if there is really one.’ The dude in ‘Each Day of Sorrow’ insists he would kill himself ‘if I weren’t so afraid.’” WH

“But as usual, Mellencamp is at his best when he turns hardscrabble struggle into damn-the- torpedoes rock & roll. On the title track, a classic Sun Records ‘boom-chick-boom’ romp” WH in which Mellencamp takes on the voice of “a hiccupping hillbilly,” DL “is both wistful and self-deprecating.” JK He “runs through a list of fantasies, some quite reasonable, before concluding that ‘it won’t get no better than this’ however relatively fucked-up ‘this’ might be. Welcome to life in 21st-century America, ladies and gentlemen: Let’s party like it’s 1929.” WH

No Better Than This isn’t a perfectly honed set.” WH He can sound “earnest and overreaching, like the attempted workingman’s parable The West End,” JP “but Mellencamp has never sounded looser or easier on a record. The most indelible moments are straight-up funny.” WH

“He’s a coy Casanova” DL who “manages a crooked grin” JP on Love at First Sight, a song in which Mellencamp “imagines a relationship from back-seat grope through marriage, kids and subsequent disasters, before deciding it might be better to go home alone.” WH

Mellencamp narrates “the repercussions of a bar fight” JK on “The waltzing tall tale Easter Eve,” JP which sounds like “a strange, Dylan-like story song.” RL “A man and his 14-year-old son get hassled in a cafe, slash a motherfucker up, get thrown in jail, then walk off with the dude’s grateful wife. It’s musical storytelling for hard times: far-fetched, violent, sexy, played for laughs. It doesn’t get more timeless, or American, than that.” WH

“Mellencamp says the album is ‘as American folk as I’ve ever been.’” “He told Rolling Stone in July 2009 that he’s not concerned whether or not there’s a large audience for such a raw, simple record. ‘I am done being a rock star,’ Mellencamp said. ‘I have no interest in that, in having the biggest concerts. I have only one interest: to have fun while we’re doing this and maybe have something that somebody might discover.’” WK

In the end, “as much as any programmed, multitracked pop extravaganza, No Better Than This is inseparable from its technology. But the songs aren’t revivalist imitations;” JP “behind the period arrangements and the antique haze of the production, they’re still Mellencamp songs.” JPNo Better Than This works as well as it does because it plays to Mellencamp’s strengths. His genuine empathy for rural living and his occasional hell-raising both come through in equal measure. And despite the heavy blues influence that Burnett brings to the project, it’s still obvious that Mellencamp has the heart of a folk singer.” JK Besides, “the minimalism of these songs fits perfectly with this acoustic blues style that Mellencamp began to explore on Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” JK “Mr. Mellencamp is a disillusioned grown-up echoing the sounds of brash young men. He can’t undo the ravages and lessons of time, any more than rock is going back to mono.” JP “It’s the tension and the cooperation among those competing forces that makes…[this] one of his finest.” JK

Resources and Related Links:

Other Related DMDB Pages:

First posted 1/26/2011; last updated 2/5/2022.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

50 years ago: Elvis Presley hit #1 with “It’s Now Or Never”

It’s Now Or Never

Elvis Presley

Writer(s): Aaron Schroeder, Wally Gold (see lyrics here)

Released: July 5, 1960

First Charted: July 18, 1960

Peak: 15 US, 14 CB, 13 HR, 7 RB, 19 UK, 13 CN, 17 AU (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 4.0 US, 1.26 UK, 22.0 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 84.8 video, -- streaming

Awards: (Click on award for more details).

About the Song:

Elvis Presley’s favorite song BR and biggest hit, with international sales topping 20 million, BR dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. In 1901, G. Capurro and Eduardo di Capua wrote the Italian aria “O Sole Mio,” which translates to “my sunshine.” BR It was first recorded in 1907 by Giuseppe Anselmi SF and made famous by Enrico Caruso in 1916. Tony Martin recorded an English version in 1949 with the title “There’s No Tomorrow.” KL

While overseas in the Army, Elvis heard “O Sole Mio” BB100 and after his publishers couldn’t reach a deal for him to record the “Tomorrow” version, they went to the famed Brill Building writers and asked four separate teams to craft new lyrics for the song. Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold came up with the best version KL with “It’s Now Or Never.” It borrows the chord progression and melody of the original. SF Elvis even brought the version of “O Sole Mio” by Mario Lanza to the studio as a blueprint. KL It helped him develop “a more adult, operatic sound” than anything he’d recorded before, BR marking his transition from a “rock ‘n’ roll singer to an adult entertainer.” KL

Due to copyright disputes over the original “O Sole Mio,” the song took a few more months before it saw release in Britain. BR Anticipation was so high when it was released in November that it became The King’s second single to enter the British chart at #1 and was the country’s fastest-selling single in history. BR The song returned to the top of the British charts a second in 2005 when a batch of Elvis singles were re-released.

Worthy of note – famed singer Barry White heard this song while in jail for stealing tires. It had such an impact, he decided to pursue a music career. SF

Resources and Related Links:

  • DMDB encyclopedia entry for Elvis Presley
  • BB100 Billboard (9/08). “All-Time Hot 100
  • BR Fred Bronson (2003). The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (5th edition). Billboard Books: New York, NY. Page 73.
  • KL Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh (2005). 1000 UK Number One Hits: The Stories Behind Every Number One Single Since 1952. London, Great Britain: Omnibus Press. Page 70.
  • SF Songfacts

First posted 7/12/2012; last updated 4/25/2021.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the Pre-MP3 Era

Gather ‘round, children, for a tale of the days of old when music came from stores instead of cyberspace. What now takes up mere megabytes on a hard drive or an iPod once occupied actual physical space – be it piano rolls, sheet music, 78 RPM records, LPs, cassettes, 8-tracks, or compact discs.

The 8-Track Era

My first dip into the music-as-consumable-product pool came in my tween years. It was the late ’70s and the 8-track had dreams of knocking the LP off its throne. The chunky tape owes its existence to the impracticality of blasting Ted Nugent from a record player while tooling around town in a Trans Am. There was a trade-off; 8-tracks erased the luxury of dropping a needle on a specific song or location within one. And while records might scratch, warp, or even break if abused enough, they never punished listeners with loud, annoying ka-klunks mid-song.

With portability being the 8-track’s only pro and me being a few years shy of the teen dream of blasting whatever I chose from my car stereo, I inexplicably dove into the album world via the 8-track. My first album purchase was a K-Tel various artists compilation called High Energy. While mostly disco *ahem* “classics”, it also inexplicably included Styx’s “Renegade”. Why this album rock standard was keeping company with Amii Stewart’s funked-up take of “Knock on Wood” remains a mystery, but it got K-Tel’s grubby hands on my wallet.

The Cassette Is King

With an eye on correcting the 8-track’s flaws, the cassette introduced fast forward and rewind capability and – most importantly – recordability. Now any tune that traversed its way across the radio airwaves was within grasp of any kid with a tape recorder – so long as DJ-interrupted or chopped-off song intros and outros were acceptable.

My first tape garnered me no bragging rights of growth in musical taste. People deserve forgiveness for their first, generally peer-influenced and therefore often dubious, musical purchases. However, my pass had expired by the time I plunked down change for the Xanadu soundtrack, by Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra. Even ONJ and ELO fans don’t hail it as either’s greatest work. Nonetheless, I’ll confess to still having a “you’ll-always-cherish-your-first-love” fondness for it.

It was during the cassette-dominated first half of the ‘80s, however, that my radio dial shifted from Q104’s top 40 format to the album rock of KY102. Styx’s “Renegade” was no longer the abnormality amongst pop-oriented fare, but the standard bearer. When my friend Nick and I plunged into the buy-12-albums for-a-penny record club, my first acquisitions included Styx’s Paradise Theater (natch), Journey’s Escape, Foreigner 4, REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, Queen’s Greatest Hits, and J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame. They didn’t afford me the hip quotient of Elvis Costello or the Clash, but they were a step-up from the Olivia, John Denver, and Neil Diamond fare in my eight-track collection.

My college years significantly expanded my musical palette. My roommate Steve was buying Aerosmith and Deep Purple and I was taping the Rush and Led Zep catalogs thanks to Steve’s head-banging pal Blake.

Ah, but Blake’s was only one music collection. Every new person represented a new audio library. More than once, I drooled my way back to my dorm room with handfuls of tapes borrowed from recent acquaintances surely skeptical about ever seeing their music again. To all the whoever-you-weres out there – thanks for Squeeze, Violent Femmes, the Smiths, the Indigo Girls – all the alternative-rock oriented stuff that most shaped my music personality. And yes, I think I returned everything.

When I wanted to actually buy music, options were limited. With Wal-Mart being my college town’s only music source, I had to satiate my hunger with occasional road trips to Streetside Records in Sedalia with my fellow tune-obsessed buddy Mike, who also conveniently had a car (a Mustang with “Bad Co.” vanity plates, no less).

Marillion, Malls, and Music Exchange

My most important college-era purchase, however, was over Christmas break during my freshman year. That fall, Marillion’s “Kayleigh” mustered a fair amount of radio airplay on KY. I was intrigued by the song, but hesitant to shell out the dough for the whole album. After all, these were pre-Internet days. There was no surfing Amazon.com to hear track samples. There weren’t used-CD stores for test spinning discs via in-store players. One had only the radio and friends to rely on – and if neither of them were playing it, you were out of luck.

However, taking the plunge was softened by my giddiness about being back on my home turf where I could shop at multiple music stores under one roof (kids, they called them malls – they’re now nearly as extinct as the 8-track). Having some Santa stocking money to blow made the art work of the song’s parent album, Misplaced Childhood, even more appealing. Just what was inside this painting of a barefoot kid in a military jacket surrounded by a rainbow, a magpie, and a poppy flower? Well, when I plunked my cash on the Camelot counter, I took the leap into what became my favorite album of all-time.

Obviously, not every risk has paid off so swimmingly. I’ve nabbed my share of duds that gathered dust on the shelf until eventual banishment to the discard pile. Still, even they resulted in fond memories. The artsy part of town that housed most of Kansas City’s bars also offered up the metro area’s best options for purchasing used music. I’d traipse down to Westport, usually with Steve #2 (so named here to distinguish him from Steve #1, my college roommate), to trade my cast-offs in hopes of venturing home with a new batch of listening treasures.

Steve #2 was quite the sport to tolerate my obsessive need to hit not one, but several stores on each spree. Music Exchange was a given, but there were other shops to hit as well. Steve #2 also patiently endured my methodical search through everything from A to Z. I often left with a dozen or more tapes. I might grab up four or five Sammy Hagar or Bob Seger albums, not because I wanted their complete discographies, but because I was trying to compile anthologies. Once I’d recorded the requisite tunes on to my own greatest-hits collection, back to the discard pile the source material went.

The Dawn of the Disc

I treaded reluctantly into the CD age. As music collectors can attest, there’s nothing quite so maddening as having to overhaul one’s music library to stay technologically current. My first venture into the world of discs was with Marillion’s 1987 album Clutching at Straws, the follow-up to Misplaced Childhood. I didn’t actually own a CD player, but had to have the bonus track not on my cassette version. Thankfully, the Steve who lived across the hall (Steve #3 for those keeping track), let me listen on his CD player.

Needless to say, it was far from my final CD. In my post-collegiate twenty-something years, I became a disc fiend. What used to be pilgrimages to Westport were now weekly treks to Disc Traders (often right after a trip to the library to read up on new releases in Billboard magazine). I was a regular on a first-name basis with the staff and bought more than a few of their recommendations. Thanks, Dan! Thanks, Saul!

A dozen years and over a thousand CDs later, I welcomed the new millennium as a newlywed and a thirty-something. I was now supposed to limit my music spending to only a handful of albums a year, and all by artists I’d first heard 20 years ago. However, music obsession trumps age and I continued to spend every bit of leisurely cash on music by new and established artists.

The Revolution Will Be Converted to MP3 Files

Another music revolution accompanied my life changes. This time, however, it came not at the hands of big-time record execs, but college student and computer programmer Shawn Fanning. The recording industry tried desperately to put the Napster genie back in the bottle. The same companies who shamelessly milked the record-buying public through the LP, 8-track, cassette, and CD eras now made the brilliant move of suing their customer base for illegal downloading and copyright infringement. This was the kind of PR nightmare that made the makers of New Coke breathe sighs of relief that finally, for the first time since 1985, someone else could be the brunt of all the worst-marketing-moves-ever jokes.

I expanded my music library by leaps and bounds. Initially, I burned my legal and ill-gotten booty onto disc (a Clapton in the ‘90s collection was the first CD I made). Eventually, though, the reality of the new age dawned on me and my computer hard drive now houses more music (35,497 songs as of this writing) than my wall of CDs.

What’s next? A card that fits in your wallet that lets you access your entire collection anywhere you go? Music on-demand just by thinking a tune and having it play in your brain? Who knows. But I’ll be ready to overhaul my collection again when the time comes.