Quick Spins: John Mellencamp, Admiral Byrd and J Minus“Quick Spins” are expedient, pretension-free music reviews. This installment tackles John Mellencamp’s “No Better than This,” Admiral Byrd’s “Goodbye Cruel Worldview” and J Minus’ “Devil Music.”
John Mellencamp’s “No Better than This”
WHAT IT IS: Mainstream Heartland rocker John Mellencamp teams with revered Americana producer T Bone Burnett a second soul-stirring time (first was 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom”). The blood-sweat-and-tears approach taken on “No Better than This” — the rootsiest album of the Indiana superstar’s storied career — is perhaps best exemplified by something Mellencamp told Rolling Stone magazine last year: “I am done being a rock star. I have no interest in that, in having the biggest concerts. I have only one interest: to have fun while we’re doing this and maybe have something that somebody might discover.”
WHAT ONE JERK THINKS ABOUT IT: Recorded in gun-barrel mono, “No Better than This” is the sound of Mellencamp moving forward as an artist. As such, it succeeds in catapulting Mellencamp into the arena of critical acclaim … something I’ve felt has escaped this Midwest staple for far too long. Simply put, these are stark, dusty ballads. There are exceptions, of course — like the rollicking title track, the album’s first single — but rock fans who associate Mellencamp only with such big hits as “Pink Houses” or “Hurts So Good” will no doubt be taken aback. But to dismiss this album as a throwaway experiment with gritty realism would be a shame; those with even slightly adventurous ears will find much to love here. Sure, tour dates with Bob Dylan may have rubbed off on Mellencamp a little too much (let’s just say that the latest from Duluth’s most famous native son, “Together Through Life,” sounds like a polished hit machine in comparison), but I really feel that this record is a showcase of genuine growth. It’s hard to imagine Mellencamp slinking back to stadium-level rockers after such an enjoyable ride.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: Buy it. Songs like “Coming Down the Road” and “Save Some Time to Dream” don’t have the immediate mainstream appeal of, say, “Authority Song,” but they’re far more rewarding.
… BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT: Learn more about “No Better Than This” — available now on Rounder Records — at www.mellencamp.com.
Admiral Byrd’s “Goodbye Cruel Worldview”
WHAT IT IS: Not your traditional rock record: “Admiral Byrd is an experimental writing/recording project based in Copenhagen, Denmark,” states the group’s press manifesto. “Todd Casper, Jacob Kofler, Al Fleming and Thomas Cranley are ex-pat musicians, formerly of the Great Depression and Arman. Multi-instrumentalists all, they write, record and produce the material at their own Highwire Studio, which is generally very dark. … Somehow, all of the tracks on their debut album, ‘Goodbye Cruel Worldview,’ became stories of broken-down structures and the need to leave faulty systems behind.”
WHAT ONE JERK THINKS ABOUT IT: This is what the cool kids should be listening to. (The genuine ones, not the ones who just discovered MGMT.) While I can’t get on board with the whole “We fled America to escape its problems” scenario — just like I always preferred the letters of John Updike to the ex-pat heavyweights who came before him — I can hear a good record when it’s pounding down my Koss headphones. “Goodbye Cruel Worldview” kicks off with “Don’t Touch the Radio,” a builder that evokes the late works of Remy Zero, though tracks that existed in a decidedly more sinister alternate universe. Admiral Byrd follows that up with the pulsating, drowned-out “Every Day is a Picnic at the Zoo” and personal favorite “On with the $how,” which falls somewhere between Muse, the Standard and Avenpitch. Needless to say, there isn’t a lot of sunshine emanating from “Goodbye Cruel Worldview.” This is one dark metropolitan exorcism. Coldplay fans need not apply.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: If this album were to land in one of my favorite used-CD haunts, I would buy it for its title alone. It’s clever without being overbearingly obnoxious. If you turn to music to make your day, however, you might want to take this disc for a test drive before committing.
… BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT: Learn more about “Goodbye Cruel Worldview” at www.admiralbyrd.com.
J Minus’ “Devil Music”
WHAT IT IS: The third album from J Minus, a Seattle-based quartet whose sound is nearly impossible to pigeonhole. This Dylan Fant-fronted group shifts uneasily between straight-up ’90s throwback (the delightful, radio-ready “Seasons”) to dark, atmospheric early-a.m. ballads (“No Sleep Tonight”).
WHAT ONE JERK THINKS ABOUT IT: A little piece of advice: If you want to thoroughly enjoy J Minus’ “Devil Music,” don’t look at its artwork. Simply ask a friend to unwrap the disc from its packaging when it arrives in the mail and have them place the offending material in the trashcan before carrying on with your listening experience. Hopefully without forming too much of a solid image in your mind, I’ll share this: Wholly misleading crayon art accompanies this album. Its front cover, for one, is a field scene of a couple skipping along underneath a rainbow — all in crayon, mind you, and looking as if it were etched out by an ambitious gradeschooler. Now, I have nothing against using sloppy crayon drawings for album art if they’re somehow related to kids or sunshine-y days (this approach worked splendidly on the impressive 2000 tribute album “Songs for Summer”), but it just doesn’t work here. I wouldn’t normally waste so much space dissecting an album’s artwork, but I felt like this one’s step into “crayondom” was so hopelessly misguided that at least 85 percent of potential listeners will simply pass on it because of the cover. … OK, my overseers just informed me to A) take a breath and B) get on with the record review. So, here goes: There is nothing inherently groundbreaking about this group or album, but it isn’t without its merits. While J Minus scores big when it is manufacturing highly enjoyable (though light on substance) pop tarts — in particular “When the Lights Go Out” and the aforementioned “Seasons” — its appeal starts to stumble when it moves away from vaguely Toad the Wet Sprocket-inspired territory.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: Head down to the “MP3 buffet.” At best, the songs on “Devil Music” will bring you back to the oh-so-sentimental days of “Dawson’s Creek.” (You know, small towns and figurative butterflies in the stomach.) At worst? Think one of the “American Pie” sequels. Needless to say, you don’t need those bland throwaway tracks weighing down your record collection.
… BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT: Learn more about “Devil Music” at www.jminus.com.
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