John Mellencamp,
Trouble No More
(Columbia, 2003)

Opening with a thunderous and instantly addictive rendition of Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway," John Mellencamp's self-produced and gorgeously ragged collection of folk and blues covers from the dustbowl and delta days of rock 'n' roll's birth comes as a welcome dousing of water over the industry's increasingly obnoxious onslaught of glitter, pop and sex. It is also likely to calm those critics who cast off Mellencamp's newer efforts as just more of the same old Johnny. While Jack, Diane and those little pink houses still lurk beneath the surface of Mellencamp's retreat to the music that made him possible, from Johnson to Son House to Woody Guthrie and the traditional stomper, "John the Revelator," Trouble No More is still an intriguing step in a direction that is at once old and new.

But if he needed a fresh start musically, he hasn't exactly been mired in a creative stalemate, either. The raw, rootsy and often bellicose rock fests of his younger days have given way, in recent years, to more mature and festive arrangements, introduced to fans rather triumphantly on 1996's Happy Go Lucky, a raucous concept album dwelling on aging, ennui and, of course, the suburban despair of the anonymous and lonely. Laden with unlikely bursts of violin that propel the album from start finish, even Cougar's familiar, scattered cast of alienated down-and-outs gave way to an unusually cohesive storyline circling back in on itself like a good novel. The sitars and tablas asserting themselves throughout 1998's eponymous masterpiece, then, came as less of a surprise than they otherwise might have seemed.

If anything, Mellencamp depends even more overtly on these most recent additions to his musical repertoire, as "Teardrops Will Fall" howls like wind through a golden vase with its chiming carnival of strings. Simply stripping down the sound and billing this as Mellencamp's "return to roots unplugged album" might have caricatured both he and his latest project into a parody of their own good intentions. Instead, we have both the fresh inspiration of a minor American icon dragging yesterday's blues effortlessly into tomorrow with a robust and ardent musical backdrop faithfully at his side.

A wicked interpretation of "John the Revelator" seems poised to haunt the dark side of the world with its ferocious backup vocals, and Mellencamp doesn't do too badly himself with his familiar but no less stirring growl on Willie Dixon's jaunty "Down in the Bottom." "Meet me at the bottom, bring me them runnin' shoes/Hey you can meet me at the bottom, bring me them runnin' shoes/I'll be coming out the window, I got no time to lose" he snarls before an eruption of violins, bouncing percussion, and a even washboard for good measure. If the success of Wilco and Billy Bragg's Mermaid Avenue projects, Etta James's recent resurgence with the brutally raw "Let's Roll," and Norah Jones's anachronistic "Come Away With Me" attest to a growing appetite for minimalism, Mellencamp delivers the goods with tact and variety on "Trouble No More."

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 30 August 2003

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