Review: John Mellencamp, ‘Strictly A One-Eyed Jack’ – Curmudgeon Rock?

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I’m going to admit right off the bat, that much like 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, this new Mellencamp album Strictly One-Eyed Jack is going to be an acquired taste. It’s going to need time to grow on you, in much the same way wine needs to breath a bit when first opened. It’s like olives… who liked olives the first time you ate one?

It wasn’t always that way. I think when you mention Mellencamp’s name to most folks it conjures his late 80s, early 90s heyday. Most people think of “Jack And Diane” or “Little Pink Houses” or some other big anthem. Squint your eyes and in your memory you can see John in a video in a wheat field strumming a guitar while we all sang along. He was one of the biggest artists on the planet. I can even admit to remembering when his name was John (or to some people, Johnny) Cougar. His manager at the time gave him a stage name based on the type of car the manager drove. I’m not sure I’d trust anybody who drove a Mercury Cougar to guide my career but then I was in middle school back then so what would I have known? And Cougars were sporty… While we were all vaguely aware of John Cougar he wasn’t a household name by any means. If you’d asked me in 1979 who sang “I Need A Lover” I’d have told you it was a Pat Benetar song. She covered the song, albeit without the great, extended guitar intro and that was the version that became a “hit.” They didn’t play the Cougar er, Mellencamp version until later… at least in Kansas City anyway.

It wasn’t until 1982’s American Fool that John Cougar broke it big. “Hurts So Good” was a good song but it was “Jack And Diane” (a track I don’t like) that was the big hit. I would urge everyone to seek out the song “Thundering Hearts” from that record. I wasn’t on the bandwagon until the 1983 release, Uh-Huh. Yeah, the video for “Crumblin’ Down” was cheesey – John dancing around parking meters like he was a young Cool Hand Luke – but damn if it wasn’t a great song. “Play Guitar” and “Little Pink Houses” drove me to the record store. It was the first album to bear the “Mellencamp” name. It was credited to John Cougar Mellencamp in what we didn’t realize at the time was a rebranding campaign. The great meat and potatoes rock that he was serving up continued on the more politically charged Scarecrow, which is probably my favorite LP of his. And, naturally, my sainted mother even liked “Small Town” on that record because well, she’s from a small town.

Mellencamp then took a stylistic left turn and got more “rootsy” on his true masterpiece, The Lonesome Jubilee. It was instrumentally speaking a much more varied sounding record. There was violin and more acoustic guitar which was like stumbling across plutonium in the 80s. There were still great rock songs like “Paper And Fire” but it felt like a real left turn for the heartland rocker. I think we all thought it was a diversion, a one off but it turned out that more rootsy style came to define almost everything Mellencamp has done since then. “Cherry Bomb” is more his signature style than say, “Small Paradise.” The last really hard rocking album Mellencamp did was Whenever We Wanted. I still love that album. Tracks like “Get A Leg Up” and “Love And Happiness” are all slashing guitar and crashing drums. After that album my interest in Mellencamp waned slightly. I loved his ’98 album John Mellencamp, as did the Rock Chick as I found out later we both owned it.

From there Mellencamp settled into this T Bone Burnett, murky almost old-timey style. Well at least after Freedom’s Road he seemed to. That and his blues cover album Trouble No More were my final Mellencamp LP purchases. As he became deeper attached to that more roots oriented sound his vision became considerably darker. The titles gave away where he was coming from: Life, Death, Love And Freedom (which sounds like a Johnny Cash title) or Plain Spoken. To go with his darker vision, the cigarettes he smokes finally ravaged his voice to the point where he’s in that Howlin Wolf, Tom Waits area. I’m a huge fan of emotive vocals versus polished vocals so the disintegration of his voice has never bothered me. All of that said, Mellencamp remains an amazing songwriter. The vision is dark but the words stick with you… more so for me than a song like “Jack And Diane.”

On Strictly A One-Eyed Jack we find John has kept his signature band together. Long time guitarist Mike Wanchic is still in the band. As is, Andy York/guitar, Dane Clark/drums, John Gunell/bass, Troy Kinnet/accordion & keyboards and perhaps most importantly Miriam Sturm on violin. Sturm’s violin is perhaps the most prominent instrument here. Thematically we find John talking a lot about lies – two songs have the word in the title, slander (“Did You Say Such A Thing”) and rain. The tracks about rain might just end up on our Playlist: Rainy Day Songs. One thing that does come across clearly from Mellencamp’s lyrics… he, as the kids say, gives zero fucks about what anybody thinks. He’s said publicly he’s not into writing hit records, he just wants to make great albums. I would say that Strictly A One-Eyed Jack is a very good, nearing great album indeed.

One thing different this time out is the sporadic appearance of that other 80s icon, Bruce Springsteen. Yes, Springsteen is credited with vocals on a few songs but more importantly he brought his guitar. The song “Wasted Days” is my favorite of the Bruce songs, and perhaps on the album. I still don’t know why I’m not hearing more about that track – if it was 1986 it’d be the biggest hit of the year. Bruce does a harmony vocal and guitar solo on “Did You Say Such A Thing” where Mellencamp accuses someone of “talking shit” on him. Springsteen’s guitar is more important than his harmony vocal on that track and it’s a livelier moment. Springsteen only adds guitar to the ballad and album end-er “A Life Full of Rain.” All three of these tracks deserve a listen.

The album opener “I Always Lie To Strangers” is a dark, gravelly affair. It can be a little off-putting on first listen like that cover art painting. Did someone poke John in the eye? What are we to take from that opening song? Is John telling us lies over the next 12 tracks? Things do pick up on the second track, “Driving In The Rain,” the first of two rain tracks. It’s a lilting waltz of a song with a great melody and comes complete with Andrews Sisters type female backing vocalists singing, “Ooo.” We get more into Mellencamp’s state of mind on “I Am A Man Who Worries,” which just might be my theme song. The song is all snarling vocal and violin with my favorite line, “I come across as dangerous and unforgiving.” Sounds like Mellencamp and I have a few things in common these days.

As usual it’s the quieter moments that I like the most. “Streets of Galilee” is a beautiful piano and acoustic guitar ballad. It’s one of my favorites. “Gone So Soon” is the saddest ballad Mellencamp has ever done and from a sonic perspective it could be something Sinatra did. “A Life Full of Rain” is another Tom Waits-ian ballad. It’s all piano and craggy vocals but a beautiful rumination on life’s mistakes while Bruce plays guitar. When Mellencamp gets quiet and sad, count me in.

The title track comes across like an old Dylan track where a bunch of fictional characters play a game of cards. I love the way the drums drive the song along… “The Gypsy King is dealing from the bottom of the deck…”Sweet Honey Brown” has a bass-line that reminds me of “Under the Boardwalk.” When the violin kicks in we know this is not anything that happy. “The show is over… the monkey’s dead.” It seems to be Mellencamp’s farewell to show business. “Lie To Me” continues the theme of lying. It’s another stand out track with the great line, “Lie to me, Lord knows I’m used to it.” The only track that really left me cold – other than the opener – was “Chasing Rainbows.” It’s like a bizarre (almost drunken) sing-along that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a Monty Python movie. It’s sung with more of a grimace than a smile.

Mellencamp, in my mind, remains an important if overlooked artist these days. I love that he’s brave enough to share his dark vision of life with us on Strictly A One-Eyed Jack. You aren’t going to hear these tracks on the radio – and it’s criminal “Wasted Days” isn’t being played more – but they are important, well written songs nonetheless. I recommend everybody pours something strong, throw another log on the fire and turn this one up.

Cheers!

Review: John Mellencamp, “Wasted Days” Featuring Bruce Springsteen – How Am I Not Hearing More About This Great New Song?

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How is this song not blasting out of every radio, everywhere? Mellencamp? Springsteen? Together? Singing on the same song?! This is like the Clash of the Titans. Well… maybe not a Clash… maybe it’s more like the Harmonizing Of The Titans.

There was a time, sadly long passed, when I think this song would be getting a Hell of a lot more attention. If it were say, 1986, this track would be the Number 1 song in the universe. While both these artists have had long and remarkable careers, even I will admit in the 80s they were part of the dominant rock scene that just doesn’t exist anymore. Springsteen was in that whole Born In The U.S.A. hoopla that bled into Live 1975 to 1985. Mellencamp went on a incredible run of LPs starting with Uh-Huh (at least for me) to Scarecrow to The Lonesome Jubilee. It’s a bit of odd pairing… I always thought of Springsteen as a more natural fit for a duet with Bob Seger… those guys were pals back then. Mellencamp was all Farm Aid and Springsteen was out with Amnesty International… But listening to these cagey old veterans, they’re a great fit. To quote one of my favorite comedies, “Cats living with dogs, MASS HYSTERIA!”

I got into Springsteen when The River came out. My entry point to any artist back then was what was playing on the radio after I’d become rock n roll conscious and for Springsteen that was The River. I’d heard some of the tracks from Darkness On The Edge Of Town on the radio, but I was still too newly converted to the church rock n roll and I’m not sure I realized all of the Darkness songs were Springsteen. The River ended up being my first Springsteen LP purchase. And believe me, when you’re in high school on an allowance a double-album was a big investment. I still have a great fondness for that album even though my friend Brewster didn’t take me with him to the concert in KC on that tour… bygones. That album led me to a lifetime of listening to Springsteen with and without the E Street Band. I’m embarrassed to admit, the first time I heard Born To Run in it’s entirety was at a Senior Skip Day party when I was a mere junior in high school… but that was all the way in 1981. I was sitting in this guy’s backyard, not far from the kegs talking to these two girls who while only one year older were still just out of reach. I left that party with nothing more than a nice beer buzz and the determination to purchase Born To Run immediately… once the beer wore off, which I did.

My journey to Mellencamp was a tad more circuitous. Right after we’d got to high school my buddy Brewster – of the infamous River tour snub – went to see John Cougar (as Mellencamp was known back then) with a guy I’ll call Carter (name changed to protect the very, very guilty). Once again, I was not invited… I’m beginning to see a trend. Brewster and Carter were at this Cougar (Mellencamp) show,  which was in support of his second major label LP Nothing Matters And What If It Did – and somehow Carter and Brewster ended up partying with Cougar’s manager. I don’t know if its the same guy who renamed him “Cougar” after his automobile or not. They’re drinking with this guy at his hotel and Carter talks the manager into giving him Britt Ekland’s phone number in L.A. Apparently the manager guy had formerly had Rod Stewart as a client and had his ex girlfriend’s number. Carter called her but he only talked to her maid who answered the phone. Carter was an outlaw… but I digress. While they’re drinking with this manager, Cougar walks into the room. He actually autographed a copy of Nothing Matters… and signs it with the tag line, “Don’t Forget Me.” Sadly, I was with Brewster when he trashed the album and its autographed cover a few days later. He didn’t like the music. The ignorance of youth.

A few years later – and it seemed like light years – I would rediscover Cougar when I heard American Fool. A girl I had started dating, who I guess you’d call my “first girlfriend” had that album. Her parents both worked which was rare in the ‘burbs where I lived. Her parents didn’t get home until 5 pm every day… we all got out of school at 3… you do the math. This gal and her friends and I would go over and hangout at the house during the late afternoon. That’s where I heard American Fool. While I still despise “Jack And Diane” I really liked a lot of that album and thought it was a huge leap forward from Nothing Matters. I really liked the deep track “Thundering Hearts.” Sadly though, I didn’t truly get on the Mellencamp (no longer Cougar) bandwagon until Uh-Huh when I was in college. Maybe it was the name change? That album rocked. “Crumbin’ Down” and “Play Guitar” remain favorites to this day. I really have followed Mellencamp ever since. Although I will admit in the 2000s my Mellencamp album purchases have been sporadic. I was all in on Freedom’s Road, a late career gem. And I dug the raw and rootsy No Better Than This although its more of a late night LP, not a party record. But I’ll admit, I sort of lost touch with Mellencamp. His voice, ravaged by cigarette smoke was slightly off-putting. But then, in 2017 I heard Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which I loved, despite the title. While Mellencamp’s voice was at its most gravelly – one might compare it to a gravel truck that’s thrown a rod – he offset it with female harmony vocalists and it just worked. I was reminded once again that super strong songwriting and an emotional vocal delivery will produce something special every time. And Mellencamp delivered!

I’d been immersed in early 80s Bob Dylan for the last few weeks as I absorbed his new entry in the Bootleg Series, Springtime In New York. I only stopped listening to that box set long enough to take in Chrissie Hynde’s super new solo LP, which happens to be a set of Dylan covers. I finally emerged from this Dylan fugue state to discover this new track by Mellencamp that featured Springsteen. I’d heard some press buzz about it a few months ago. It was slated to be on an upcoming Mellencamp LP, which I now hear is going to be released in 2022 instead of this year. Frankly it was one of those post-lockdown LPs I was really looking forward to for this year but hey, now I’ll just look forward to it next year. When I found out this song was out – and I was surprised – I was further shocked that it wasn’t generating more buzz. I liked it immediately upon hearing. It’s been in high rotation here in the B&V labs this week. I love the pairing of these two earnest rock stars.

I mentioned earlier that if this had been released in 1986 it’d be a monster hit. Well, in 1986 when these two guys were still “the young lions” they couldn’t have sung this song. This is a song written by a more seasoned artist, facing down the end. The first line lets you know what “Wasted Days” we’re talking about here – “How many summers still remain?” Oddly a guy said to me recently, “I’ve only got like 20 summers left, I’m going to enjoy them all…” There’s nothing like getting to the end and thinking, man how much time did I waste and how much do I have left? When you reach a certain age, you can’t avoid those questions and this song hits it straight on with a sense of resolve tinged with regret. While it’s a heavy topic, the tune isn’t a downer. It’s a mid-tempo thing that drilled into my brain through my ear. It’s definitely more of the Mellencamp universe/soundscape with Springsteen as the guest. I did chuckle when I saw the cover art for the single. It looks like these two elder statesmen of rock n roll just tied up their horses outside at the hitch of this farmhouse and came in to sit down to play some acoustic guitar. I feel like there might be a pie cooling on the window sill.

The track starts with the strumming of acoustic guitars with a spidery electric dancing in and out. Mellencamp must have been hitting the hot tea with honey because his voice sounds significantly less gravelly than on Sad Clowns and Hillbillies (which was sadly the last time I’d heard him). Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some gravel in Mellencamp’s voice… Mellencamp takes that first verse and when they hit the chorus you hear Springsteen come in. I love that harmonizing on the chorus. “We watch our lives just fade away to more wasted days…” Springsteen sings the second verse. He’s impassioned and a great counterpoint to Mellencamp. The track has that signature Mellencamp, rootsy accordion to carry it along. I don’t know if that’s Springsteen on the guitar solo but it sure sounds like him… I did search to find out who plays lead on this but couldn’t find the details, I’ll have to wait until the LP comes out. To hear these guys, at this stage of their career, nay their lives, come together and knock it out of the park like this is just a joy to behold. They didn’t waste a day or a minute or a second recording this track.

Here it is:

If you’re like me and you’ve been in a Dylan haze – and who possibly has really? – or if you’re not like me (and you’re normal) and your local radio has let you down and isn’t playing this song. I urge you to put this into high rotation. It’s got me pumped for what might be a great John Mellencamp LP in 2022, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever say again. Put this one on late at night with a little more volume than usual and perhaps a little more whiskey than usual… Life is a precious commodity… don’t waste it.

Cheers!

Third Time’s The Charm: The Artists Whose Third Album Was The Breakthrough

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*Only 5 LPs photographed because most of your intrepid blogger’s property is still in storage…

I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sure seems like bands have a lot more avenues to get their music out these days especially when compared to how they used to do it in the 70s or 80s… I’ve been sitting in the cheap seats watching my friend Drummer Blake work to establish his latest band the Sunset Sinners and those guys are a marketing machine. I don’t think they’re any different than any new band out there today. There are so many tools at a band’s disposal. Bands now have YouTube where they can release videos of live performances or just old school videos like Dirty Honey‘s latest. There’s so much more a band can do with social media today. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter new bands have a way of communicating directly with fans so when a record company comes calling, the band already has a built in fan base that can literally span the globe. And now with Tik Tok that social media reach may have even gotten broader… at least that’s what my friend James tells me, he loves Tik Tok. I’m only on a few social media platforms and Tik Tok ain’t one of them. Not yet anyway. I only got on Instagram to follow the bands I love…well that and to watch videos of cats and dogs doing adorable things. I’m like everyone else in that regard. 

In the old days a band’s social media consisted of the guys in the band wandering around downtown stapling cheap copies made at Kinkos to telephone poles to announce a gig. I think there was a scene in Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’ where they’re doing just that which had to be hot and exhausting in all that spandex. Typically to start a band a few like minded musicians who liked the same music might huddle together in a garage and start playing cover tunes. After a while and usually a few line up changes – often that involved someone answering an ad in the newspaper like Ace Frehley – the band might start doing gigs in front of actual people, not just distressed family members. A school dance here, a keg party there, it all helped the band to start to create a following. The band’s repertoire would expand and eventually they’d start to create their own, original music. Eventually some enterprising bar owner would let the band play on their stage… or perhaps give them a residency. Maybe Gene Simmons would show up and pay for a demo tape like he did for Van Halen…probably not but somehow  demo tapes would get made. If fortune and luck shone on the band, a record company would extend a contract… Oh, and a manager probably showed up somewhere in this process to take 10%.

When the record company would offer the band a contract you’d think all their dreams were answered. It’s the Cinderella story. Record companies today seem to only want bands who can deliver that mega-million dollar selling debut LP. Maybe record companies have always been that way? But for some bands that debut album fails to connect. Not every debut can be Boston or Appetite For Destruction (Pleased To Meet You… The Epic List of Our 40 Favorite Debut Albums). Some really classic debut LPs from the world’s biggest bands have been commercial failures. In meetings, the record company guys all act supportive, but the pressure is really on now. To make matters worse, there’s the sophomore slump that hangs over a lot of bands. Bono, in his Rock Hall of Fame speech was talking about being in a band and described the 2nd album (and he was speaking generally) as “the difficult second album.” The old saying, “You have your whole life to write your first album, and only a few months to write your second,” holds some truth. Even for bands whose debut LP had a hit single or two and sold well, a weak second album only brings more pressure. And there are a lot of weak second albums out there… U2’s October is a prime example. 

For a band whose first two albums hadn’t sold in big numbers, I can only imagine that the third album was a “make or break” situation. Today, I don’t think any current label would keep an act longer than two LPs if neither sold well. We live in an instant gratification world, and if a band’s first or second album doesn’t explode, it’s time to move on. Back in the 70s and even the 80s, record labels seemed to be slightly more patient. They would let a band develop, mostly by playing a shit ton of concerts on the road, but also in the studio and as songwriters. Sometimes all that was needed was a new producer. Maybe the band tweaks the line up. It just felt, without all the social media to help build in that fanbase, that record companies back in the day gave artists’ more time or a little more leash, if you will. 

Some of the world’s most renown artists took an entire three albums to break into that world wide fame and commercial success. If these bands were coming out today I’m not sure any record company would have stuck with them until that third album and that would be a damn shame. Here is my list of phenomenal third records that made the bands who recorded them famous. I consider each of these records essential rock and roll listening. 

Aerosmith, Toys In The Attic

While Aerosmith had the hit “Dream On” on their debut, the album didn’t make a dent. They moved in together so they could rehearse constantly and brought in renown producer Jack Douglas for their second LP Get Your Wings, which sold better. At that point Aerosmith became road warriors. They toured incessantly behind the 2nd LP which helped build their fan base but also improved their songwriting and chops. With the big singles “Walk This Way” (later redone with Run D.M.C. during their “comeback”) and my favorite “Sweet Emotion” Aerosmith became superstars. This, to me, is Aerosmith’s peak album. Even the deep tracks like “Uncle Salty” and “Adam’s Apple” kick ass. I love the first two Aerosmith LPs, but I can understand how this is the one that broke them wide and far. It’s telling that they re-released “Dream On” during this time period to try and boost sales of that debut. 

Lenny Kravitz, Are You Gonna Go My Way

While Lenny’s debut is now considered a classic, you never heard much of it on the radio. Every woman I met in the 90s, even casually, put his debut on for me to hear. Despite his unending support among 20-something aged women, his second LP, Mama Said was pretty much invisible. Then suddenly, the title track of this album exploded on to radio and MTV with an iconic video of Lenny rocking in a circular room and flinging his dreds everywhere. There are so many classic tunes on this album – “Believe,” “Heaven Help,” “Black Girl,” and “Just Be A Woman” to name a few. Yes, Lenny tends to wear his influences on his sleeve, but he distills all of them into a fantastic album here. I’m not sure he ever did anything as good as this essential third LP. 

No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom

I had no doubt back in the day that I didn’t like this band. Then the Rock Chick took me to see them live on their reunion tour and I was blown away by them. Guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal, and drummer Adrian Young were lean and muscular. I wasn’t prepared for how hard they rocked. Front woman Gwen Stefani who went on to totally disappoint me on her solo career was charismatic and energetic on stage… I was mesmerized by her performance…but I’m getting off topic. After that show, I went out and bought all their albums. Their eponymous debut LP got zero support from their record label and they asked to be dropped from their contract which the label refused to do. Their 2nd album, Beacon Street Collection can be thought of as songs about hating their record company. Finally on the third LP, they pierced the grunge consciousness of the era with Tragic Kingdom. Listening to this LP all these years later, it’s a staggering leap forward from the first two records. “Just A Girl” is a woman’s empowerment anthem for the ages and it actually rocks. From that to the ballad “Sunday Morning” this album is just about perfect. 

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Damn The Torpedos 

Petty’s first two albums had classic songs and hits – “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “I Need To Know” and “Listen To Her Heart.” Listening to those albums today you could tell this was a band who was on the verge of breaking big. Damn The Torpedoes was that quantum leap forward and coincidentally the first Petty LP I ever purchased. My brother had it before I even did. “Here Comes My Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” were all monster hits but I like some of the deep tracks. “Even the Losers” (a personal anthem) and “You Tell Me” are stellar. I even dig “Louisiana Rain.” One of the greatest albums of all time. 

The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta 

Maybe some day someone will explain the title to me… I was in junior high when the Police’s debut album Outlandos D’Amor came out. We all loved “Roxanne.” I remember singing it like Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, loudly, high-pitched and out of tune in study hall much to the chagrin of the teacher in charge. Outlandos was a classic despite the French title, but I didn’t know anybody who owned it. The second album, Regatta De Blanc boasted the hits “Walking On the Moon,” and “Message In A Bottle” but it didn’t seem to resonate with as many people. Frankly I thought both those tracks were on the debut. After a world wide tour, much like Aerosmith, that honed their playing and songwriting skills they returned with Zenyatta Mondatta and suddenly everyone was on the Police bandwagon. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” about the nonsensical nature of speeches by politicians, teachers and lawyers was the first single and despite probably not understanding that, we all loved that song. I think my friend Doug saw the Police on this tour. Every song on this album could have been a hit. Between the Police and Aerosmith I think it could be argued every new band should be sent on the road for at least a year to play as many shows as they can. 

Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run

Springsteen’s first album Greetings From Asbury Park is now seen as a classic. Groups from Manfred Mann to Bowie to Greg Kihn have covered tracks from this album. Commercially though, it was largely ignored. His second disc, The Wild, The Innocent And the E Street Shuffle, which gave his backing band its name, is my favorite Springsteen album. Oddly, the great epics on that album like “Incident On 57th St,” “Rosalita,” or “New York City Serenade” were largely ignored. With his back to the wall, Springsteen wrote his greatest batch of songs. He wanted lyrics like Dylan with Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” I’d say he checked both those boxes! Like Damn The Torpedoes this is one of the greatest albums of all time. I’m just glad Columbia Records let Bruce have a third shot at an album. They would have dropped him if this record failed… 

Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story 

After his brief stint as “vocalist extraordinaire” for the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart recorded his debut, The Rod Stewart Album, or as it was known in the UK, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. It was part folk, part rock n roll which would set the template for the rest of Rod’s best work. It didn’t take off so he joined the Faces as their lead singer and after that, he’d release an album with the Faces and a solo album every year. It wasn’t until his third LP, Every Picture Tells A Story that he broke it big when a DJ in Cleveland flipped over the first single “Reason To Believe” to play the B-side, a little ditty named “Maggie May.” Rod became a superstar which was great for him, not so great for his mates in the Faces. I still hope Rod, Ronnie Wood and Kenny Jones can get a semi-Faces reunion together and do something. Rod was always better when he was working with a strong guitar player like Wood. 

U2, War

Boy, U2’s debut boasted the fabulous song “I Will Follow” that they still play in concert but it only made a little dent on the charts. The “difficult second album,” October didn’t do them any favors. Like Springsteen, with their backs against the wall, they retreated to Hawaii and recorded their breakthrough album. Sure, they had bigger and perhaps better albums, but War is the LP that broke them wide open… it’s also the first LP from them I purchased. The anthems “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” moved them in a political direction that I always loved. It’s amazing how many of these third LPs ended up being some of the greatest music ever recorded… Maybe it’s the pressure? 

The White Stripes, White Blood Cells 

Like a majority of people, this was the LP where I first discovered the White Stripes. I ended up going back and buying their previous 2 LPs almost immediately upon buying White Blood Cells. The eponymous debut was all garage-rock, meaning it sounded like it was recorded in a garage. It was raw and ferocious, naturally I loved it. Even I will admit however, I can see why that wasn’t an international sensation. Their second LP, De Stijl was, like Springsteen’s E Street Shuffle, my favorite Stripes album. It’s bluesy and punk… its blues punk. However, it also failed to resonate far and wide. White Blood Cells had the big hits that made them famous “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl” that likely drove a lot of people like me to their first two records. They may have had bigger albums but this one is almost perfect. “We’re Going To Be Friends” is the best acoustic track they ever did. “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman” has always been a personal fav. The Stripes just released a wonderful Greatest Hits album if you’re not obsessive about owning every LP but White Blood Cells is the perfect place to start with the Stripes. 

 

Most, if not all of these bands went on to storied, long careers. They all had “bigger,” better selling albums but these are such critical pieces of that later success. These are some of the greatest albums ever. I urge everyone who hasn’t heard these “third” records to do so immediately. Because as we’ve just learned, sometimes the third time is the charm. 

Cheers! Be safe out there, we’re getting closer every day to being able to some of this great rock n roll played live! 

 

 

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.