Tuesday, September 7, 2010

John Mellencamp

No Better Than This

Rounder Records

Since 1989 or so John Mellencamp has been shedding the label-induced "Cougar" moniker and all the crap that came with it. At the same time he's been making indelible, serious and fun music ever since. People were confused or turned off by Mellencamp's "Pop Singer" (from 1989's Big Daddy), a thrown gauntlet to cats off his manufactured namesake. Perhaps fans felt he turned his back on their good times, their lives. They should have seen it coming with 1987's Scarecrow.

It was easy to misinterpret. Mellencamp was asserting his power as a songwriter, not wanting to be part of the pop music assembly line, one far worse now in 2010. He continued to craft earnest songs ("Martha Say, "Jackie Brown") while delivering catchy ones ("Key West Intermezzo", "Get a Leg Up", "Your Life is Now"). In truth, Mellencamp has never really made a bad record since hitting big in 1982. He's been talked about with Guthrie and Dylan but derided for writing hit songs. He's had albums that wandered, Freedom Road, Trouble No More, and struggled the last decade with record labels, jumping from Mercury to Sony to smaller labels (Hear Music, Universal Republic).

The singer once said that men weren't worth a damn till they're forty. Maybe Mellencamp was talking about richness with age, attaining wisdom. His last album, 2008's Life Death Love and Freedom, produced by T. Bone Burnett, seemed to be the distillation of age, wisdom and creative countenance. It was, perhaps, an album he's been working towards since the mid-nineties, if not earlier. It's spare and raw nature was perfect for the album's subject matter and Mellencamp's coarse, much older voice. No Better Than This, also produced by Burnett, follows up on it, the singer still sounding like a young man adverse with the world around him.

No Better Than This was recorded at historic locations - the hotel room where Robert Johnson recorded, Sun Studios, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. Those locations are interesting, poignant, but what's relevant are the songs and how they were recorded - a single microphone and a 55-year old Ampex tape recorder. Mellencamp once thanked The Rolling Stones for keeping the "living room on the record." He was recalling the feeling of wonderment of sitting in a room and hearing a record - before an overabundance of TV and the Internet. With No Better Than This, we're alone in those rooms with him.

The sound of the record is important. It's thick and unpolished. It feels real, it feels dirty and tainted. For all the grittiness and sparseness the songs are inviting and at times as catchy as anything else the man has ever written. Each is an individual story, all worth taking in. I'm as much of a fan of Mellencamp's early work as his most recent. we've probably only begun to see the watershed of work by a man in his later-years prime. Years from people and critics alike will probably look back at these years and albums as the beginning of something far more prolific in Mellencamp's catalog.

-Brian Tucker


Split 7-inch

Fort Lowell Records

Black and white. Yin and yang. North and south. You get it. That's how disparate this split 7-incher is. Selecting the raw power-pop of Los Angeles' Wet & Reckless and Tuscon-based Tracy Shedd works significantly, eschewing the notion of placing similar sounding bands on a single platter simply just to sell. Wet & Reckless, a dubious and exciting name for a band if there ever was one (its a term for an actual DUI charge in California), and Shedd have songs that are polar opposites in terms of emotion and surrealism. They are textured and honest songs, anything but overtly polished but are seriously songs that stick. Wet & Reckless' "New Guy" is retro and electric, its jangly surf rock sound coupled with Emily Wilder's sugar coated vocals, as if The Breeders tried on The Beach Boys. It's an energetic song of guys and relationship uncertainty. Wilder sings, "I'd rather be burned and left in the dark/Than Durafalmed with a tiny little spark." Regardless, it's a great rock song that lasts much longer than its actual three minutes. Shedd's "Tear It Up" is haunting and moody, built upon lilting western styled guitar playing. The song is about going out and dancing and whose lyrics are brief but weights the song like a novel. Shedd's vocals are magical and hypnotic. She sings the words in a soft cooing fashion and the effect is nothing short of ghostly. This split 7-inch is solid, an no-brainer teaser for looking into work by both artists.

-Brian Tucker

$6 Limited to 500 copies this 7-inch Candy Bubblegum Red vinyl comes with w/download code. Out October 5th, 2010


Lost in the Trees

All Alone in an Empty House

Anti- Records

Success, by varied definitions is measured by hard work - through sacrifice, perseverance and unintended suffering. Art tends to walk a similar path, the really good art which prevails and continues to resonate. Lost in the Trees' All Alone in an Empty House has become more affecting, and remains just as sincere an album in the time since originally released in 2008 on the Chapel Hill, NC label Trekky Records. Quite simply, its power as an album of music remains.

Lost in the Trees signed to Anti- Records in February 2010 and All Alone in an Empty House was reworked by producer Scott Solter. Two new songs were added to the original album sequence ("A Room Where Your Paintings Hang" and "We Burn the Leaves"), enhancing and extending the experience of Ari Picker's musical collective of folk and classical music.

The material is born from the heartbreaking and dysfunctional household Picker grew up in. Lyrics are taken from arguments in his home and the situations, the abuses, are anything but contrived. Picker sought to harness them into something productive, something creative. An admirer of classical music, Picker endeavored to bring classical and folk music together, injecting melancholic and sometimes catchy folk songs with a style traditionally overlooked by many under thirty. "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang" is a perfect example these two styles meeting with marvelous results.

The album is built upon gentle acoustic guitar and vibrant string playing and underneath exists a patchwork of hard memories and ascetic relationships. The album is awash in grey cloud sentiment and raw honest emotions, all thrown against a scarred canvas. The result is endearing and beautiful. Not knowing about the heartache, one listening would still walk away thinking something is broken here. While All Alone in an Empty House bridges folk and classical music, it transcends what an album is and can be. It operates less as novelty but as an innovative way to communicate stories, to better elevate a listener's emotions.

Haunting stringed instrumental songs serve as a means to pause. "Mvt. I Sketch" and "Mvt. II Sketch" clock in at under ten minutes but their placing feel like moments to reflect, to breath. The title track is tempered with the added sounds of footsteps on leaves, adding tension to a song already taut given its subject matter of sexual abuse. Picker sings "Where is the baby?" repeatedly and the way he sings, in a soft, almost female voice, is haunting and beautiful simultaneously.

All Alone in an Empty House feels like incessant climbing before finally reaching the top, finding a place in which to be comfortable. For all its melancholy there are symbols of strength - wooden walls, artists, paintings, and love. The most prominent is love. In his singing Picker exudes it in the face of heartache. He sings of a painter who's lost their hands on "Song for a Painter" and there's the memorable and radio-ready "Love On My Side" where Picker sings "We're all going to get old and buried in a hole/But my mortal love I give to you." Given the pain adrift here this one song cements humanity, and its ability to love, as the victor. Picker sings, "I never heard someone say love is not an option." No matter how those sentiments came about, in the end, its a moment of light eclipsing dark.

For all the somberness and austerity at work here there is something uplifting about it, perhaps its knowing that Picker won out over hardship or its simply the transfer of the music's power to the listener. All Alone in an Empty House, in the end, feels like a rural storybook with symphonic muscle.

-Brian Tucker