LO-FI-NO-FI-RETRO-AMERICANA….ALL TRANSCENDED, ALL REDEEMED (CD Review: John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This)

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This (2010)

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I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.

The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.

Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.

Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.

As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.

Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).

Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.

The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.

In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.

How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”

Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.

But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.

I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.

And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 3: The Seventies, Amended)

Whenever you do this sort of thing, ad hoc, you’re almost bound to leave something out. But, while I haven’t had more than one or two pangs of regret over my sixties’ list, the deep and fundamental inadequacy of my seventies’ list started bugging me almost as soon as I posted it. I kept remembering yet another album that made me ask “How could I have left that one off?” Finally, when there were enough of them, I decided to put the eighties’ list on hold.

I’m not much into the old this “decade vs. that decade” disputes, at least not when the decades in question were indisputably great. But for rather obvious historical and demographic reasons, the seventies were certainly the most prolific decade for rock and roll. One fun aspect of taking the focus off the canon for a bit is exploring roads not taken or roads that were partially explored before being abandoned. More of that probably happened in the seventies with truly popular (and populist) music than in any other arbitrary ten year stretch. Some of what’s here “hit,” some didn’t. But it’s easy to think that any of it might have. And, in any case, it was fun to have an excuse to dig out the vinyl and just sit back and smile….

Brinsley Schwarz Despite It All (1970)

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Fake country rock…from England. Really, now, what other decade had that? Weird thing was, for the space of this album, it was convincing. Even Gram Parsons never did better with the concept. And, as we surely know now if we didn’t know then, that’s as good as the concept gets.

Pick to Click: “Ebury Down”

The Move Message From the Country (1971)

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In the later vinyl and cd era, re-releases of this album have always included “Do Ya” and some other fine singles recorded around the same time which were not on this album originally. But the original album was fine on its own. They morphed into ELO of course, but, believe me, Bachman Turner Overdrive took a few notes as well. If, like me, you cant that a good thing, then this is a kind of touchstone of a style of rock and roll that, unless “rock and roll” counts, was never hip enough to acquire a catchy name.

Pick to Click: “Until Your Mama’s Gone”

The Belmonts Cigars, Acappella, Candy (1972)

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I have to admit, when I put the original list together I left this off because I thought these guys had been inducted along with a lot of other famous backup bands/groups a few years back (Blue Caps, Miracles, like that). Seems they weren’t. Once again, you have to sometimes wonder what the folks at the Hall are thinking. Me, I’d put them in if this miraculous LP was all they ever did.

Pick to Click: “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”

B.J. Thomas Billy Joe Thomas (1972)

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I wrote at length about this album’s most famous track here. There’s no way the rest of it could live up to “Rock and Roll Lullaby” which would pretty much upset the balance of any LP ever made. But Thomas was one of the finest studio singers of studio singing’s golden age and, as the title suggests, this is an attempt at the kind of cohesive statement studio pros weren’t supposed to be capable of (not being “soulful” enough presumably). Despite some occasionally pedestrian production, it largely succeeds. A vocal tour-de-force.

Pick to Click: “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Following along with the “Drift Away” theory established in the “Volume 2, The Seventies” portion of our program….Of the album’s other cuts, I especially commend the closer, a version of John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell” which, unfortunately, I couldn’t find on-line.)

Barry White Stone Gon’ 1973

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One of the things Rock and Roll America used to turn up on a fairly regular basis was voices the rest of America hadn’t been able to previously imagine. Believe me, you can find more precedent for Little Richard in 1955, or Jimi Hendrix in 1967, than you can for Barry White in 1973. This was his second album. It’s here because it’s the only non-comp of his I happen to own. I’ll need to correct that oversight some day. Just be warned that his habit on LP was to stretch his great singles to the breaking point and then surround them with the stuff the radio didn’t have time for…also stretched to the breaking point. I’ll just add that when white Englishmen took this sort of approach, it was always called “art” or “classical” and never once sounded either half as good or half as adventurous.

Pick to Click: “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” (long version)

KC and the Sunshine Band Do it Good (1974)

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If disco hadn’t taken off the way it did, and they hadn’t played such a key role in that takeoff, then they would probably be recognized and celebrated for what they really were, which was a hardcore southern funk band whose leader, Harry Wayne Casey, was, as bandleader, frontman, writer, producer and arranger, the point man in changing the style’s deepest scene from Memphis to Miami.

If that kind of recognition should ever come, it might just get him and his crack band (along with his partner in enlightenment, Richard Finch) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they richly belong. All of their period albums are good, and their basic comp is essential. But not more so than their first album, which creased the R&B charts and presaged their breakout the following year. In a word, they did what a southern funk band was supposed to do and for half a decade they did it better than anyone else.

They stomped.

Pick to Click: “Sound Your Funky Horn”

Hot Chocolate Cicero Park (1974)

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Actually, every album they released in the seventies could qualify as one of my favorites for this list and just as superb albums period. They were basically unclassifiable, which may be why they’ve never quite gotten credit for being as great as they were. The vision was equal parts funk, rock, glam, reggae, sixties’ soul and social protest. Actually there once was a classification for that: Rock and Roll. Don’t tell the wrong people. They might swim over to your island and steal your Hot Chocolate records.

Pick to Click: “Changing World”

Wet Willie Keep On Smilin’ (1974)

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The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd set the tone for most of Southern Rock. It would be rooted in blues and R&B, crossed with country and English hard rock, with (in the case of the Allmans) a little jazz thrown in. Wet Willie were hardly unmindful of all that, but they also gravitated toward blue eyed soul and hard funk and, at their best, it led to what I can only call gutbucket beauty. This is them at their best. If the title track were even conceivable today, it would be slotted “Americana” and have no chance whatsoever of being played anywhere except college radio. In it’s day it went Top Ten on the Pop charts. Tell me again why things are really the same or better now?

Pick to Click: “Keep On Smilin'” (live)

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids Rock & Roll Forever (1975)

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This is a cheat. It’s a sort of comp, though sufficiently unusual for me to include it even if I didn’t have my reasons. It contains their first album, plus other stuff like the cut from American Graffiti (where they played the band for the high school dance) that threatened very briefly to break them out. They were neo to the core, of course. Throwbacks of a kind that normally aren’t good for anything more than the cheapest nostalgia. A decade later, bands like the Blasters made the throwback thing cool and the Stray Cats even made it commercial. But Flash Cadillac weren’t really like that. They were more like a group of guys who were genuinely caught out of time. They played and sang like the sixties had never happened. There were limits to the approach to say the least. But they, almost alone among the many practitioners of the ethos, found a genuine joy in it, too. Having never heard a single cut on this LP except the American Graffiti stuff, finding this in a used record shop in the nineties still put the smile of the year on my face. And taking it home and listening to it didn’t dim that smile even a little bit.

Pick to Click: “She’s So Fine”

Vicki Sue Robinson Never Gonna Let You Go (1976)

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Out here in the hinterlands there was a very long stretch, basically from whenever the single edit of “Turn The Beat Around” fell off the charts and took the LP out of your local department store’s record bin with it, until the mid-nineties CD reissue boom began taking hold, when, if you wanted to hear the incendiary long version of “Turn the Beat Around,” you had to get lucky and find this in a throwaway bin somewhere. (Oh yeah, you could luck into a 12″ white-sleeve single version…In North Florida…Sure you could. Just like you could see Elvis and Jim Morrison pumping gas across the street from the local Hardee’s.)

My copy was acquired in the late eighties. It still has the fifty-cent tag on it and, if memory serves, it was from a shop where the standard fare was more like fifty bucks.

Or it could have been from the one that was keeping most of their stock on dirt floors in an open-ended barn.

Have I mentioned previously that, sometimes, memory does not serve very well?

What I do remember was picking it up because I had kind of liked the single once upon a time, didn’t have it, but was having a bit of a love affair with old disco albums at the time, figured “Hey, it’s fifty cents. What can it hurt?”

What else I remember was playing the lead track–yes, it’s “Turn the Beat Around”–and being literally floored. There was a time when I obsessed on understanding the lyrics, especially the part where she started redeeming what I had previously considered the dubious history of any and all scat-singing that didn’t involve Louis Armstrong, before finally deciding it was pointless because she was obviously speaking in tongues.

Then, of course, Gloria Estefan came along and straightened it all out with her perfectly articulated 1994 version. I can’t tell you how I know this, and, of course it won’t really be my call, but you can rest assured that, on the Judgment Day, one Gloria Estefan will not be forgiven.

Yes, there’s a whole album and it’s a pretty darn good album. I especially like that fact that, according the back cover, one Vicki Sue Robinson both arranged and performed all that scat-singing herself, including the backup. And, of course, these days, the long version is readily available on YouTube, Amazon, etc.

But that’s really immaterial.

It would be immaterial if the rest of this album were Let It Bleed. Music’s an affair of the heart before it’s anything else. So’s record collecting.

Vicki Sue Robinson, come on down.

Pick to click: “Turn the Beat Around” (long version)

The Cars (1978)

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The album has nine tracks. Six of them became permanent radio staples, despite no single reaching higher than #27 in Billboard. It didn’t sound like anything else before it (even though everybody swore it did, because, well, it must have) and, except for other Cars’ albums, it hasn’t sounded like anything since. Maybe we should be thankful, because, before it’s anything else, it’s ice cold, the epitome of naked ambition. But it worked. And, when it works, ice cold naked ambition is as rock and roll as anything else in this vail of tears.

Pick to Click: “Bye Bye Love” (live)

Rachel Sweet Fool Around (1978)

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As I’ve said somewhere on here before, the missing link between Brenda Lee and Britney Spears. I bet Britney would have been better–and better off–if Rachel had been as big as either. Girl could have used a role model. (Britney, I mean. Rachel was a smart cookie. Went into TV, did just fine. Her lack of stardom was our loss, not hers.)

Click to Pick: “Who Does Lisa Like” (live…and absolutely smokin’)

Nick Lowe Pure Pop For Now People (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979)

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I should mention at this point that there are several albums here, including both of these, which have different tracks for English and American releases. My preferences are for the American versions. Sometimes this is simply because those are what I heard first. More often it’s because I just think the American versions are better.

Going back to the Beatles and Stones, the hard fact is that American record companies had a tendency to cut the fluff. I know this fiddled with everyone’s artistic integrity and all, but I think it also made for better listening experiences. Letting artists have complete control over their album content and sequencing was great in theory, just like letting movie directors have the final cut was great in theory. In practice, better movies and better albums got made when there was a hard won balance between what the artist wanted and what the suits wanted. Now, in the music business at least, we’ve managed the worst of all worlds. The artists are indulged and the suits could care less because there’s no real money in the recording subdivision of the multi-media conglomerate that controls the artist and reports to the corporate sub-overlords who report to the real overlords who keep asking why we really need to keep this music thing going anyway when there’s no money in it?

Case in point, the “bowdlerized” and “re-sequenced” American versions of these two LPs are swift and concise and perfect. The longer English versions (all that’s available on CD as far as I can tell, Pure Pop was originally titled Jesus of Cool) wander around a bit, never quite come to the point and leave no real indication of why this old Brinsley Schwarz hand and jack-of-all-trades record man should have been a much bigger star than he was.

If you can find the vinyl, the question will arise. Those albums were perfect in theory and in fact and, unlike, say, Elvis Costello, he clearly wanted the stardom that never quite came.

No better way to conclude an amended post on the seventies, then, than with the nearest of all the near misses…

Picks to click: “Rollers Show” (Pure Pop) and “American Squirm” (Labour of Lust)

I had some additional thoughts about Pure Pop‘s most famous track, among other things, here.

And I promise you I’m done with the seventies!

And that the eighties, being the eighties, won’t take nearly as long.

MY VERY FIRST OFFICIAL CD REVIEW (The Paley Brothers Help Me Define How I Really Feel About Certain Things…Or Something Like That)

The Paley Brothers: The Complete Recordings

(NOTE: The Paley Brothers were a sibling harmony duo who released an album and a few singles at the height of the Do It Yourself Punk/New Wave moment in the late seventies. Their complete recordings, including some previously unissued and live tracks are now available. This is the first time I’ve ever formally reviewed a CD. Somebody was kind enough to send me a review copy so, of course, since I was obligated to write about it, it fell into that most difficult of categories–Liked-it-didn’t-love-it-even-though-I-really-wanted-to. Still, thinking about it like a “reviewer” provided an interesting experience. Unlike books or movies, which require a certain level of engagement, music can and should be experienced both deeply and casually. Hence I tried on a mix of close attention and having it on in the background over the course of several weeks. It never really grabbed me…but it did leave me with a few things to say.)

The Paley Brothers were one of those “can’t miss” acts who missed. They were slated Power Pop–a genre that never quite seemed to live up to its potential in any case–but I hear as much Retro (along the lines of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) as anything. As much Fifties as Sixties in other words.

That’s hardly a bad thing. The Paleys were certainly skilled as both writers and singers–enough that I can readily understand the cult that’s developed around these recordings even if I can’t quite join it.

I’m left on the outside by, among other things, my aversion to half-formulas.

Pop, I hear, in every second.

Power? Not so much. And, unfortunately, whatever the marketing label, all first class Pop needs it, a lesson the DIY brand the Paleys specialized in failed to learn in general.

Having said all that, I can’t deny that these recordings are quite good as knockoffs (or that I have a fondness for knockoffs). And the Brothers certainly had pedigree, or, at very least, connections. They recorded most of these sides in either the Beach Boys’ own Brother Studios or Ardent Studios in Memphis (home of Power Pop avatars, Big Star).

You can read those kind of details in the very engaging liner notes which are actually the best thing about this package. But in the end, all that information does is re-emphasize how the best Power Pop (or Retro) bands always added a little something (if not a whole lotta something). And it was that extra something–not the imitative elements–that made the Raspberries or Badfinger or Cheap Trick or Big Star or, yes, I insist, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids–special.

The Paleys, on the other hand, do some perfect imitations (especially of the Everly Brothers and late period Beach Boys, though on “Too Good to Be True,” they sneak in a Bobby Fuller Four Vibe that is perfect in every respect except for their keeping their distance in a way Fuller never would have imagined even when he was throwing one of his occasional change-ups), or, sometimes, perfect-imitations-of-imitations like a live cover of Tommy Roe’s “Sheila” which itself was a top-notch Buddy Holly homage.

To be fair, the Paleys did do a bit of anticipating as well. But it was of future Retro acts like Shaun Cassidy (who they would end up touring with) and the Stray Cats (1979’s “She’s Eighteen Tonight” could be a template for that band’s entire career). And those acts would be just that little bit better–or maybe just that little bit more focused–that is so often the difference between hitting and missing.

I do hear a lot of passion in the Paleys music, especially the vocals. But in the end, their records were always let down by something. Strange to say, given that Andy Paley went on to become a big-time producer, but there are several sides here I can imagine taking off if only a little more care or imagination had been applied to some particular element of studio-craft: “You’re the Best” and “Runnin’ In the Rain” have great melodies and fine vocals but are built around seriously undercooked arrangements (a common problem with the entire DIY movement, actually, given that arrangements are the life-blood of all great Pop) while “Magic Power” which does have a strong arrangement is dragged down by an uncharacteristically misguided lead vocal.

And–background or foreground–so it goes with this entire record and with my first exposure to the Paley Brothers. They chased after so many bits of other people’s genius that they never quite found their own.

Granted, they wore their influences so proudly on their sleeves that it amounted to a kind of integrity. But it also added up to a sound with no strong central focus. That’s what separates them from bands like the Raspberries or Badfinger, who had hits by getting within shouting distance of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. And I suspect it’s the missing ingredient, as well, that prevented them from producing a single transcendent track after the manner of Starz’ “Cherry Baby” or Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat”, which at least scraped the Top 40 by getting within shouting distance of the Raspberries.

So I guess at bottom I can hear how something bigger might have happened for the Paleys with a small twist of fate here or there.

But, even on their magnum opus “Can You Come Out and Play,” I can also hear why it didn’t.

And in this latter, there is a certain poignance and even relevance.

If “Can You Come Out and Play” had as much vocal impact on Shaun Cassidy as I suspect, then that’s reason enough for the Paleys’ recordings–and this package–to exist. I mean, you can take my Sinatra records (well, Frank’s anyway) and do with them what you will, but you’ll have to pry “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie” from my cold dead fingers.

The heartfelt liner-note tribute from Seymour Stein, the Sire Records label head who signed the Paleys, believed in them and stood by them as long as possible, shows how much good will and real respect they generated.

There is some real love for them there and in a lot of the quotes from other big-timers as well–not to mention a lot of positive-to-rave reviews in the here and now.

They clearly had some sort of magic.

I only wish I could honestly say it translated to my own ears.