John Mellencamp‘s new Trouble No More grew out of Mellencamp’s increasing interest in American folk and blues and the point of it may be, besides to chronicle his own discoveries, to encourage his audience to look into the music as well. Mellencamp is smarter and has more respect than to try and project himself as being in the same league as the musicians he highlights and the songs he selects won’t present much of a revelation to people already well-steeped in the history of American music; Mellencamp mostly touches on big names (Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Willie Dixon) and he doesn’t claim to be trying to unearth any lost masters. When taken in this respect, I think that the album makes more sense and is more of a success. So while his takes on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole” and Dickie Doo’s (aka Gerry Granahan) “Teardrops Will Fall” (also done by Ry Cooder on the similarly-themed Into the Purple Valley) may not be completely necessary, they may send a listener out to search into the history and influence of Tin Pan Alley, and where’s the harm in that? Similarly, by including Son House’s “Death Letter”, he may push a listener further back than The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson.
Mellencamp’s voice has never been cool, and even though cool isn’t the most important ingredient to good blues singing it is an ingredient nonetheless. There’s a kind of hard won gruffness, a cut the crap chip on the shoulder that informs much of his singing and even though he gives it his all on the disc’s opening songs, Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” and Son House’s “Death Letter,” part of the problem is you can hear how hard he’s trying. The songs do feature some really nice playing by guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic. Mellencamp’s voice works better when it inhabits the character of the prisoner-for-life on Memphis Minnie’s “Joliet Bound” (“Some got 6 months / Some got one solid year / Take a look at me baby, I got a lifetime here”) and on the disc’s more upbeat numbers, “Diamond Joe”, “Johnny Hart”, and “Teardrops Will Fall” (here worked into a “Cherry Bomb”-style mid-tempo rocker.)
The band’s playing and arrangements are first-rate throughout. Still, there’s a kind of iron fist feeling that rules over a lot of Mellencamp’s music; it’s not that it doesn’t swing, because a lot of it really does, it’s just that there’s very little that feels informal or off-the-cuff. Normally that doesn’t really matter, it’s just another element to the music, but with this particular collection of songs, particularly on the disc’s first half, some can begin to feel a little choked. Compare Mellencamp’s style to the breezy, brash way that Uncle Tupelo could blow through a song by the Carter Family or the Louvin Brothers and you’ll get a feel for what I’m talking about. The tempos here are too controlled, too steady. Not to criticize the band for playing well, it’s just that there’s never that moment where you feel like the train could run right off the tracks. In recent memory, both the O’ Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and the Mermaid Avenue albums were more successful with their remakes and updates. Trouble No More is good but it’s never really all that exciting.
The songs that make-up the second half feel less restrained; most are without drum set, which may help free things up a little. The two songs that close the disc, “John the Revelator” and “To Washington”, are the most successful at finding a compromise between traditional arrangements and a modern setting. The slurred guitar dipped in vibrato of “John the Revelator” gives the song a stomping, doomsday feel. “To Washington” is the song that will bring most people to this disc and it’s the album’s standout piece; the whole rest of the album leads up to it. It’s another traditional but Mellencamp updates it with a new set of lyrics. With its overly simplified politics (eight years under Bill Clinton may not have produced an overt war but that doesn’t make them peaceful) and outsider-looking-in perspective, the track is direct and plainspoken. Mellencamp shows off a been-there-done-that wisdom in his protest. Anger may kick open the door to change, but it often leads to more of the same. He seems to know that in the long run, calmer, smarter heads will prevail, no matter how bleak the present may look. Fleshed out with exactly the right amount of instrumentation the song pops off the disc. Like a lot of really memorable roots music, it’s part journalism and part stumping. It’s the payoff for all the time and research that Mellencamp put into learning about American roots music. He proves that he was paying close attention in his studies and manages to channel what he learned into a song that sits comfortably in with those that inspired it. It represents a step forward in his writing as well. While not groundbreaking, Trouble No More is another progression in Mellencamp’s struggle to keep growing and manages to pass onto his audience some of what he’s picked-up along the way.