Wednesday, September 01, 2010

John Mellencamp, "No Better Than This"

Simfy listening: John Mellencamp, "No Better Than This"

As a kid, I was a big fan of John Cougar's "I Need a Lover," not as much because of the song itself but because of the great introduction to the song. And then he had his big moment in the limelight with "Jack and Diane," another tune I liked. But I haven't listened to anything by him in a long time. I was convinced to check out his latest when it was referred to in The New Yorker, and with Simfy I can easily check things out (simfy is something like Pandora in the US, I take it).

So I've listened to it once, and it's a very fine album that I'm going to listen to again: the sound of the record is fabulous (clean, simple folk-blues-country production), the playing is superb (somehow I knew before checking just now that Marc Ribot was on guitar here!), and the arrangements are varied enough to not get boring while also being consistent in sound and feel.

Still, my first reaction is to play with the title: "Why is 'No Better Than This' no better than this?" With one exception, my response to the lyrics was rather critical: they are good but not great. Too often, Mellencamp reaches for the standard lyrical turn from the folk-blues tradition, so that when he doesn't, on the stunning "Easter Eve" (the exception), it makes the "straightness" of the other tunes even more noticeable.

I have to admit I'm probably being unfair here, because I have been getting so into the magnificent Conor Oberst (and Bright Eyes) that almost all songwriting pales by comparison. But even without comparing Mellencamp to Oberst, I feel like he could have done "better than this" in the lyrics.

A streaming service changes how one thinks about music: do I want to own it for my collection? Do I want to listen to it again? Do I want to delete the album from my playlist right now? Those are the three basic responses. Here, at the moment, I'm with the middle of those: I'm going to listen to it again (and perhaps several more times after that, if only because of Ribot), but I don't think I'm going to buy it for my collection.

Oh, and there's also the category "songs to listen to again," and "Easter Eve" belongs in that one!


Donald Brown said...

Mellencamp will never be "better than this" -- if you want to hear it again, well, that's about all he could hope for. I avoid his stuff as much as possible. I won't go into cataloguing all the people he rips off as a wanna-be. But you liked "Jack and Diane" which always used to make me want to rip the radio out of the wall, so ... enjoy!

I can believe Marc Ribot makes it more palatable, but I would quote Elmer Fudd to Bugs Bunny (seeing Bugs derelict on a park bench with the likes of Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor): "Marc, why are hanging around with these losers -- they'll never amount to anything!"

Andrew Shields said...

I did listen to it again, and it's a beautiful record in its sound and its musicianship (produced by T-Bone Burnett, by the way), but the songs just aren't good enough. I assume that Marc did the record because he got a nice check for it. But anyone looking for Ribot playing folk-country-blues stuff should listen to the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss CD, which has the songs (and the singers) to back up its great production (and Ribot!).

Andrew Shields said...

By the way, I just noticed that Burnett also produced the Plant-Krauss CD, so the comparison is not surprising.