Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

What’s old is old again

| November 24, 2010

God help us if – as Greg Kot’s recent interview with John Mellencamp indicates – rigid opinions on the right and wrong ways to make music dog us into senior citizenship.

In the piece, Mellencamp insists that pop musicians have gotten away from honest recording techniques, so he and producer T Bone Burnett chose symbolic, American houses in which to track his new album: a Baptist church in Georgia once a stop on the underground railroad; Sun Studios in Memphis; and the San Antonio hotel where blues great Robert Johnson recorded. JM, TBB, and a small band would set up and knock ’em out, behaving as if they had no money while actually doing things only people of means can accomplish today. When Kot asks if they ever worried that their mission would seem like a gimmick, Mellencamp chafes as if the purity of his cause could ever be questioned.

The album, this past summer’s No Better Than This (Rounder), is both keenly timed and titled. By two months and two days it followed the massive On The Rural Route 7609 retrospective, a career-spanning treatise on Mellencamp’s songwriting chops and influences that now looks like the perfect setup for what was to come. Box sets and best-ofs are the perfect time to pause and officially mark the ends of eras, with No Better the logical beginning of a reformed Mellencamp. Free from context, this quote sums up the title: “We lost our way a long time ago with technology.”

All of this would be great for an obituary, but remarkably, the album is great. The roadtrip-recording methodolgy feeds into the songs and vice versa, running through rockabilly, country, blues, and folk without sounding cynically eclectic. Post-heartattack, Mellencamp has a tendency to be grave and preachy, but here he’s in deep with “Love At First Sight,” the song that most clearly inspired the cover art. If only he still regarded pop music with such unfettered adoration. (Friday and Saturday@Chicago Theatre.)

Though the label that helped kickstart her rebirth, Alligator Records, isn’t part of her current entourage, Mavis Staples has kept Chicago close while her run continued on Anti — humorously a boutique imprint on a label whose flagship act is Bad Religion. She recorded her 2008 live album at North Side industrial-park hovel Hideout, and didn’t seem to want to leave when it came time to track this year’s You Are Not Alone: Kelly Hogan, who splits time between Neko Case’s band and tending the Hideout bar, guests as do club regulars Nora O’Connor and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone. Free from the thematic structures under We’ll Never Turn Back, Staples is free to explore her Christianity again on a number of sides written by her late father, Pops, and Tweedy himself, who takes the producer credit and arranged the traditional “Creep Along Moses.” The frontman is very aware of himself and dutifully stays out of the way, concentrating on Staples’ voice and the understated interplay of veteran sessioneers Rick Holmstrom (RL Burnside), Jeff Turmes (Koko Taylor), and Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits). (Saturday@Park West.)

— Steve Forstneger

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