LP Review: John Mellencamp, “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” Featuring Carlene Carter

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When I was in high school I dated a girl whose parents both worked, which was rare in my neighborhood. After school we’d go over to her house for those two hours before her parents got home and drink beer and listen to music. I remember listening to one of the few albums she actually owned, ‘American Fool’ by a guy then named John Cougar. Sure, those were fun afternoons, but I never really got into that album. If middling music was the cover charge to hang out unsupervised in the afternoons with a young girl and beer, I was willing to pay it. Despite having to hear “Jack And Diane” every day, those are still fond memories.

By ’83, I was done with high school, that girl was done with me, and John Cougar was done with the last name “Cougar,” which had been given to him by his first manager. He was now John Mellencamp and he put out an ‘Exile On Mainstreet’ sloppy rocker of an album named ‘Uh-Huh.’ I was on the band wagon. I loved that album, especially the song, “Play Guitar.” Mellencamp was always described as a poor man’s Seger and Seger was described as a poor man’s Springsteen. I guess that makes Mellencamp a cut-rate Springsteen. That math was always too hard for me.

Mellencamp followed up ‘Uh-Huh’ with his two masterpieces ‘Scarecrow,’ and ‘The Lonesome Jubilee,’ that latter of which was a stylistic left turn with fiddles and acoustic guitars. Sometimes when an artist breaks with his past work and pushes himself, marvelous things result. For Mellencamp that marvelous thing was ‘The Lonesome Jubilee,’ his career highlight. Since that time, he’s bounced back and forth between his two styles, the ‘Jubilee’ type acoustic/rootsy stuff and his earlier rockier style. For every ‘Big Daddy’ he’d veer back to the electric guitar noise of ‘Whenever We Wanted.’ I stuck with him through a lot of that journey. Another positive development for Mellencamp was his shift from the typical rock lyrics to a more geopolitical view of the world, lyrically speaking. I’ve always liked lyrics that mean something…

His first album for Columbia, entitled ‘John Mellencamp’ was one of the first LPs that the Rock Chick and I found we loved in common. That was a true late career masterpiece and I urge everyone who hasn’t to check that one out. Self-titled LPs released late in an artist’s career typically signal a rebirth of sorts and ‘John Mellencamp’ is no exception. After that things got a little dicier for me with Mellencamp. ‘Rough Harvest’ was an album that sounded like acoustic demos that was recorded to get out of a recording contract, never a good artistic premise for a record. ‘Cuttin Heads’ left me cold. I liked his bluesy (more like rootsy) ‘Trouble No More,’ and even ‘Freedom’s Road’ had a lot of redeeming songs but after that I got off the bandwagon. The music just all started to sound grim. I bought ‘No Better Than This’ based on the hype of Mellencamp working with T. Bone Burnett but despite all the love of the critics it did nothing for me…maybe it was the fact they recorded it in mono. Sigh.

After that I completely disconnected from Mellencamp. I’d heard he was doing theatrical stuff for the stage and movies but I turned a deaf ear. The Rock Chick came home one day and purchased a tune she said reminded her of me, “Troubled Man” from the album ‘Plain Spoken,’ which is never a song you want somebody to associate you with. I was going through some hard times at work. I actually heard good buzz around ‘Plain Spoken’ but for reasons unclear I didn’t check it out. “Troubled Man” is a great Mellencamp tune…

I read somewhere on line that Mellencamp had a new LP coming out in late April, entitled ‘Sad Clowns & Hillbillies’ on which he was going country. “Well, fuck, consider him dead,” was my first thought. He was duetting with a woman named Carlene Carter (who I had never heard of) and also everybody’s go to country duet partner, Martina McBride. I was disappointed to think an artist the stature of Mellencamp would go the Bon Jovi country route to sell some records. Of course Mellencamp likely has a lot of alimony to pay so, maybe that was the motivation. Even the title had me horrified, ‘Sad Clowns’? ‘Hillbillies’? Really?

Despite the awful title, I was curious. I was driving around and on my satellite radio I heard a song from the new album, “Battle of Angels” and damned if it wasn’t a great song. I’ve spent some time with this LP and I’ve realized something I’d forgotten, something that is fundamental to all good music: NEVER underestimate the strength of great songwriting. You can argue with the instrumentation and even with Mellencamp’s voice, ravaged by cigarettes, but if you listen to his melodies and his lyrics, these are indeed really good if not great songs.

This is not so much of a country album as Mellencamp doing his ‘Lonesome Jubilee’ style roots music, so don’t be fooled by the “going country” stuff you read. There are some more country-ish elements here but this is not all in country. Carlene Carter, it ends up, is the daughter of country royalty, June Carter Cash and damn if she doesn’t sound exactly like her mother. It’s truly uncanny. Now, full disclosure, I love Johnny Cash and I own a duets album of he and June Carter and I’ve always loved her voice. So I immediately became attached to Carlene’s vocals. She only duets on a handful of these tunes. Martina McBride is here, but only on one song. This is not a duet’s album. Its more of a harmony vocals kind of thing with a few duets. The female voices do a nice job of off-setting Mellencamp’s sandpaper vocals.

“Mobile Blue” is a cover that I really liked, despite Mellencamp’s Louis Armstrong vocals. “Battle of Angels” is the LPs high point for me. If you check out nothing else, check that tune out. “Grandview” boasts an awesome electric guitar from none other than Izzy Stradlin of Guns N Roses fame. There are a number of strong tunes here, including “All Night Talk Radio,” which if driven by electric guitars instead of a fine Miriam Strum violin, would have been a rock anthem as big as “Little Pink Houses.” “What Kind of Man Am I” is a song that could only be written by Mellencamp, all regrets and sadness.

Don’t get me wrong, there are stumbles here. “Sugar Hill Mountain” is a tune I can do without. The album jumps off the rails on the back end which was disappointing after the strong beginning 5 or 6 tracks. “Sad Clowns” is a full on country waltz that grates on me.  “Easy Target” is sung in a vocal that sounds like a garbage truck that threw a rod. On the second half of the album, the only tune that resonates with me is the great tune, “My Soul’s Got Wings,” which boasts great harmonizing from Mellencamp and Carter.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this album. Even though Mellencamp will never likely climb the heights he once saw in the 80s and 90s, he’s still making complicated, intricate music. This is compelling and interesting despite it’s title. However, I can not recommend this record as a purchase. I’d check out the tunes on the front half of the album, selectively. If you have a streaming service it’s worth a listen or two. These are the kind of records that generally get over looked by, well, almost everybody. However, these are also precisely the type of albums, done by artists who’ve honed their craft and skills, that you’re likely to find a hidden gem or two.

Musical spelunking always brings rewards, folks.

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