Reviews of recent releases by John Mellencamp, Old 97's and Tom Jones.
John Mellencamp, ‘No Better Than This’
When Mellencamp named his latest album “No Better Than This” (his debut on the Massachusetts-based Rounder Records label), he wasn’t kidding. Recorded in mono using a 55-year-old tape recorder and vintage microphone, these songs build on the thoughtful but dark meditations of 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” but are ultimately more life-affirming. They make for Mellencamp’s most improbably compelling album since 1984’s “Scarecrow.”
Mellencamp and his band recorded the album at musically historical locations, like Sun Studio in Memphis and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Robert Johnson made his first recordings in 1936, and the album feels alive with the ghosts of those earlier artists. It’s bare-bones but not stark — songs like “Save Some Time to Dream” and “A Graceful Fall” glimmer with a Hank Williams charm and rural hopefulness.
Unlike on his last album, where on “Longest Days” he sings about how “sometimes you get sick and you don’t get better,” this one seems devoted to the idea of somehow carrying on — even a downbeat song like “No One Cares About Me” ends with a declaration that “I still think it’ll work out OK.” With “No Better Than This,” Mellencamp has worked out a low-key triumph.
Old 97’s, ‘The Grand Theatre Volume One’
Is there a more consistent band out there than the Old 97’s? They’ve released nary a dud in their 16-year career, and on “The Grand Theatre Volume One” (New West Records) a worthy follow-up to 2008’s stellar “Blame It On Gravity,” they turn things up to 11.
Singer and songwriter Rhett Miller goes grittier (and more country) than on some of the 97’s slicker mid-career efforts, and turns phrases as deftly as ever on wry, dark songs like the title track and “The Dance Class,” chronicling a recluse’s love for a woman in a building across the street, “whoever you are.” And driving tracks like “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” and “The Magician” offer classic Old 97’s cow-punk energy, even if lyrically there’s not as much “there” there.
The most audacious song on the album is “Champaign, Illinois,” which borrows its melody from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” and shares a writing credit between Miller and Dylan, with the bard’s blessing. Miller’s lyrics, about life “up north in Chicago, where booze makes no one blush,” are worthy of the collaboration, funny and haunting at the same time. It’s a description that sums up the album as well.
Tom Jones, ‘Praise and Blame’
Let’s face it, at 70 years old, it’s probably a good idea if Tom Jones stopped singing songs expressly designed to get women to throw their underwear at him — or at least he shouldn’t do that exclusively. With “Praise and Blame” (Universal/Ireland) the Welsh superstar tackles gospel, blues, traditional and country music, in spare arrangements that highlight his still-astonishing pipes and clear love of the material.
If this isn’t quite Jones’ “Johnny Cash moment,” in reference to Cash’s spare late-career collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, it does share those recordings’ sense of authenticity and heart. And it even shares a track, the eerie “Ain’t No Grave,” with this year’s posthumous final album by Cash, and Jones’ somber version lives up to the comparison.
There are other dark moments on “Praise and Blame,” including the biting “Ain’t No Hell” and the moody Dylan cover “What Good Am I?” But on tracks like “Didn’t It Rain” and “Run On,” Jones resurrects the gospel spirit of early rock ’n’ roll with much more joy de vivre than he ever did on a cheesy number like “Sexbomb.” With “Praise and Blame,” it sounds like Tom Jones has come home.