John Mellencamp, “No Better Than This” (Rounder)
John Mellencamp set out to make a historic record in historic places, and in a few days between dates on the Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson tour in 2009, he came up with “No Better Than This,” out next week.
At its core, “No Better” is a stripped-down roots offering that has Indiana’s celebrated songwriter channeling Dylan’s voice and, to an extent, Nelson’s love of melody. His grizzled, road-weary vocals are the real thing, and these pop-rooted Americana songs are solid, if sometimes a little basic.
But wait, there’s more. Mellencamp recorded these songs in some important places — including Sun Studios in Memphis and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, the same place Robert Johnson recorded in 1936.
Can you hear the tinny charm of the Gunter’s cramped room in “Right Behind Me,” a fiddle-fronted blues jam? Or is Mellencamp getting arty for art’s sake?
It’s a little of both. “Right Behind Me” is a seductive song and a soulful performance that was no doubt inspired by the environs. The soft-focus “Love at First Sight” — recorded at the First African Baptist Church, the first black church in North America going back to pre-revolutionary years — is warm and hopeful.
It’s a great idea, and the execution — T Bone Burnett’s mixing/production included — is on- point. The songs aren’t always up to the challenge. The skippy “No One Cares About Me,” recorded at Sun, isn’t worthy of inclusion here. Nor is “Clumsy Ol’ World.” But tracks such as “A Graceful Fall” almost make up for the inconsistency of the writing. — Ricardo Baca
Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge)
Pretension has always served the Arcade Fire well, from the soaring, sing-along choruses of its 2004 debut “Funeral” to the darker, more paranoid ramblings of 2007’s “Neon Bible.”
On the Montreal indie rock band’s third album, “The Suburbs,” that pretension sounds more lived-in — which isn’t always a good thing for a band that formerly inspired so much fiery emotion.
The warm, punchy production and relatable themes on “The Suburbs” (coming of age in a mindless vortex of ’80s culture, etc.) gives songs like “City With No Children” a stronger pulse than many “Neon Bible” tracks, which suffered from fussy framing and an omnipresent sense of dread.
“The Suburbs” peels back some of that suffocating web, opening with the agreeably rambling title track before jumping into the should-be anthem “Ready to Start.” But the chronic lack of climactic moments (something the band excelled at on its debut) and sheer flood of material (16 songs in a little over an hour) smooths out any peaks and valleys, leaving a somewhat featureless landscape when considered from a distance.
The Arcade Fire made brilliance sound easy on “Funeral,” and some of that remains on “The Suburbs” (see the Cindy Lauper-esque “Sprawl II”). But the band that charmed us so easily on its first album seems to have found a decidedly less-inspiring way of expressing its (still-considerable) talents. — John Wenzel
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Ricardo Baca is the founder and co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning critic and journalist at The Denver Post. He is also the executive director of the Underground Music Showcase, Colorado’s premier indie music festival. Follow his whimsies at Twitter, his live music habit at Gigbot and his iTunes addictions at Last.fm.
John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press. He also maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles.