Thursday, May 25, 2017

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter Sad Clowns and Hillbillies 2017

I haven't been following John Mellencamp for a while. His last three before this were produced by T-bone Burnett, whose productions I generally avoid. I also never really warmed up to Mellencamp's newer country-Americana sound. I liked his rocking records from the early nineties, but I also thought that most of his records featured some great singles and some lesser material (with an exception for Whenever We Wanted 1991, a near perfect hard rocking effort). His best-of compilation Words And Music 2004 is outstanding.

I bought this because I've always enjoyed Carlene Carter. I realize now that I haven't written about Carter here before, and I hope to rectify that in the near future. For now, we have this one to discuss, and I'm sorry to say it is not a great record, but it has its moments.

The record starts with Mobile Blue, an OK mid-tempo country blues. Battle Of Angels follows, and it is a dull country song with little to hold the listener's interest. Grandview is a decent mid-tempo rocker, and features Martina McBride (briefly) to good effect. It's built on a good guitar riff. Four tracks in, we finally get Carlene Carter on Indigo Sunset, and it's the highlight of the record. A lovely, sentimental ballad written by Carter and Mellencamp, and Carlene sounds great. A real treat of a song and fine performance. The sad country ballad What Kind Of Man Am I? follows, and it is saved by Carlene's harmonies and a big choral finish. All Night Talk Radio is a typical Mellencamp melody and a decent lyric.

Side two opens with Sugar Hill Mountain, again featuring Carter's fine vocal. Even Carlene can't save the the song's trite lyric and so-so country waltz melody. You Are Blind is more mid-tempo country fare, and it is better than some of the others, but not by much. Damascus Road is good mid-tempo rock, and Carlene and Mellencamp do a nice duet. Early Bird Cafe is stronger than most of the other songs, and it's telling that it's a cover song. Sad Clowns is a better than average Mellencamp tune that sounds like it took more than five minutes to write, which is good. Carlene returns for My Soul's Got Wings, a Mellencamp melody over a Woody Guthrie lyric that has a country-gospel feel. Mellencamp and Carter sing it very nicely. The closer, Easy Target, has a political lyric, and is a better than average  country ballad.

Mellencamp's voice has a raspy, ravaged sound these days, but he can still be a compelling singer. What is mostly lacking from this record is great songs. Most of Mellencamp's efforts seem under-developed, with tossed-off melodies and only fair lyrical ideas. Only Indigo Sunset, Damascus Road, My Soul's Got Wings, and Easy Target are strong material. Carlene Carter appears on only five songs (with some minor harmony vocals on one or two others), although she helps make things more interesting every time she appears. The band is good, and guitars, organ, and violin add color and craftsmanship frequently. But I just can't stop wondering how great it could have been with better material and more Carlene Carter.