From rowdy ’70s Punkish Pop stomper to ’80s heartland rocker to ’90s Americana bard to new millennium Folk provocateur, John Mellencamp has reinvented himself admirably over the past 30-plus years, albeit without the big picture importance, durable creativity or stylistic range of Bob Dylan, David Bowie or Neil Young. Mellencamp has always seemed to operate on a Bruce Springsteen Jr. level, spouting a good many workingman aphorisms in a slightly more obvious and slightly less epically poetic fashion.
With the dangerously titled No Better Than This, Mellencamp teams up with dusty producer du jour, T Bone Burnett, to craft a mono masterwork steeped in ’50s Rockabilly and ’60s Folk with the same Indiana mushmouthed passion and everyman conviction that has informed his work both great and small.
“Thinking About You” rings with the intimacy of John Prine (lacking the clever humor and insight), “No One Cares About Me” lopes and banters with Woody Guthrie simplicity (without the populist anthemics) and the title track chugs with the verve of early Johnny Cash (sans the quivering passion and menace). It’s not hard to spot Mellencamp’s influences on a scaled back affair like No Better Than This, where the lack of complexity leaves little room for him to disguise his music or his intentions.
The success of No Better Than This lies in Mellencamp’s passionate recreation of the genres he’s honoring and his confidence in the plainspoked lyrical message. There’s no denying Mellencamp’s mainstream success or his absolute sincerity, and No Better Than This evolves beyond the former and uniquely validates the latter.
Kathryn Calder’s music career may be among the most star-crossed in recent memory. Her mother’s unrelated adoption search revealed that Calder was the niece of New Pornographers’ co-frontman/creative sparkplug Carl Newman. In a flash, she was installed as the Porns’ keyboardist (and female vocalist when Neko Case was unable to tour). All of this subsequently raised the profile of Calder’s existing band, Immaculate Machines, which scored a label deal and released a pair of pretty great albums in rapid succession.
Perhaps Calder felt slightly overwhelmed by all of the attention for her band pursuits and disconnected from her personal creative identity, or perhaps she just needed to define that identity in a more focused manner. Whatever the reason, she pulled away from Immaculate Machines in 2008 and channeled her energies on the Pornographers and her debut solo album, the just released Are You My Mother?.
Written during a difficult period when Calder’s mother was ill and subsequently died, the album reveals a number of different facets to Calder’s creative personality, exploring the depth of emotion of her experience with her mother’s illness without wallowing in the resultant sadness.
It’s easy to think of Neko Case in this context (she appears on the album, along with Porns Todd Fancey and Kurt Dahle), but Calder distinguishes herself with a slightly more ephemeral voice, particularly on the explosively eloquent “All It Is.” She displays a truly diverse sonic palette, from the Aimee Mann-esque Pop of “Arrow” to the Sandy Denny-meets-Stephin Merritt smart Pop/Brit Folk lilt of “If You Only Knew” and “Follow Me Into the Hills” to the juddering rhythms and infectious reel of “Day Long Past Its Prime.” In their light, it’s just as easy to think of Suzanne Vega, Beth Sorrentino, Jane Siberry and Joni Mitchell and a host of the best Folk/Pop songwriters of the past four decades.
Are You My Mother? finds Calder taking a giant step toward standing shoulder to shoulder with that hallowed company.
The music industry works in mysterious ways, which is the nice way of saying that it must be hard for it to walk around with its head shoved up its ass. The latest example is the “new” Toadies album, Feeler.
To recap, the Toadies roared out of Texas in 1994 with the platinum-selling Rubberneck, a Southwestern version of Nirvana and Weezer that combined smart lyrics, voluminous dissonance and Hard Rock anthemics. Inexplicably, Interscope — the geniuses that had banked plenty with Rubberneck — nixed the band’s demoed-and-recorded 1997 sophomore album. As a result, the Toadies didn’t record another album until 2001’s Hell Below/Stars Above and then broke up a scant five months into the album’s tour. After floating around in a variety of roles (vocalist/guitarist Todd Lewis in the Burden Brothers, drummer Mark Reznicek in Eleven Hundred Springs, guitarist Clark Vogeler as a film editor), the Toadies finally reassembled to craft 2008’s No Deliverance, which spawned an Active Rock radio hit with the title track.
With the relative success of No Deliverance and the band’s subsequent tours, the Toadies get both validation and vindication with the release of Feeler, the album that should have followed Rubberneck. Taking the best songs from the Feeler sessions (bar those that wound up on Hell Below) and adding in a pair of vintage unrecorded tracks, the quartet (now featuring Hagfish bassist Doni Blair) took the songs into the studio and re-recorded them for this nine-track mini-album. Clearly, the rerecording means that you don’t actually hear what the label heard nearly a decade and a half ago, but it’s hard to imagine Interscope’s rejection of Feeler based on the songs themselves.
“Waterfall” has the same chugging urgency and swaggering swing that marked Everclear’s early brilliance, “Dead Boy” bristles with infectious Punk energy and Pop melodicism and wouldn’t sound out of place in a Foo Fighters or Queens of the Stone Age set, and “City of Hate” has the quirky feel of Kurt Cobain fronting Wall of Voodoo.
Who can say what might have transpired if the Toadies had been allowed to present Feeler to their considerable audience in 1998 as they intended. But there’s no disputing that it makes for a kickass release here in 2010.
Eli “Paperboy” Reed comes from a decidedly non-Soul/Blues background in Boston, but his childhood love of the genres led him to Clarksdale, Miss., after high school where he acquired a journeyman’s skills and his nickname (after a newsboy cap he wore everywhere). A move to Chicago and exposure to real deal influences like Howlin’ Wolf and obscure Chess artists further refined his tastes and talents. After returning to Boston, Reed released a pair of acclaimed Blues/R&B discs,Sings Walkin’ and Talkin’ and Other Smash Hits! and Roll With You, which earned him great press and a 2009 Mojo Award nomination for Breakthrough Artist of the Year.
On Come and Get It, Reed’s third album and major label debut with Capitol, he hybridizes Motown Soul/Pop, Philly Soul and Stax-flavored R&B with a Brit’s sense of classicism and an American’s sense of Pop style. Reed’s presentation in both songwriting and arrangement on Come and Get It is glass-smooth and polished to a high sheen, unlike his grittier early work, with horn charts that are so unwaveringly tight and precise that you can almost see the choreography that accompanies them.
Reed’s vocal delivery is reminiscent of Delbert McClinton and Paul Carrack, but his measured calculation unnecessarily sands the rough edges off his soulful bluster. As a result, Reed merely bounces along when he should be swaggering, singing when he should be shouting, shouting when he should be wailing, merely dancing when he should be shivering in the throes of Soul’s passion. It’s the difference between learning to play Soul with your head and feeling the R&B/Soul performance in your very core, the difference between Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose and Sly and the Family Stone.
Reed has obviously attracted a sizable following and not without reason, but the dry-cleaned and sharply creased R&B of Come and Get It is perhaps a little too starched for fans of a more authentic Soul experience who may be looking for something slightly more sweaty and satisfying.