The argument between analogue and digital recording methods is neatly summarised this week by comparing this simple, stripped-down offering from John Mellencamp with the second album by Klaxons, on which the songs are hidden away beneath layers of digital blah, track after track of guitar and keyboard and effect piled upon the material until its spine snaps, and all that remains is some amorphous noise begging for your attention.
No Better Than This was recorded with T-Bone Burnett and his crack session crew, using just a single microphone and a vintage tape recorder over 50 years old. Upping the retro-Americana ante even further, the songs were all recorded at significant heritage locations, such as the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, which as its name suggests was the very first black church in America; Room 404 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where hardwood flooring was temporarily relaid over the carpet to acquire similar acoustics to those prevailing when Robert Johnson laid down his first historic recordings there; and Sun Studio in Memphis, location of a thousand magical moments, where Burnett's band set up according to floor markings determined decades earlier by Sam Phillips for optimal sound quality. You don't tempt those kinds of comparisons unless you're pretty sure of your material: if the songs are no good, there's nowhere to hide.
Fortunately for Mellencamp, his songs are steeped in much the same Southern stew of guilt and belief, despair and faith, rural dust and hell-raising devilry that coursed through Robert Johnson and Jerry Lee Lewis and the early Baptist congregations when they raised their voices in these same locations, so the effect is never spurious. And the songs are well-chosen for their situation: what could be more apt in the Gunter Hotel than "Right Behind Me", a song about satanic possession, set to lone guitar and austere wisps of violin? Likewise, the church seems an appropriate place to celebrate affection and the co-dependency of marital fidelity in songs such as "Love at First Sight" and "Thinking about You".
But it's the material recorded at Sun Studio that forms the bulk of the album, and traverses the widest range of emotions, from the jaunty rockabilly of "No One Cares about Me" and the title-track, driven along like a horse-drawn buggy by the slap of David Roe's string bass and Jay Bellerose's sit-up-and-beg drum groove, to the suicidal despair of "A Graceful Fall" and the bar-room contretemps so baldly laid out over the wan banjo of "Easter Eve". Mellencamp's delivery throughout has the stain and grain of old tobacco and bootleg whiskey, while Burnett's careful touch ensures that each song is captured with maximum presence, a concern that often seem surplus to requirements in the digital realm, something to be hopefully faked later in the mix. No Better Than This is exactly that, the kind of album that reminds you of the power and immediacy that used to be not just integral to, but the beating heart of, popular music.
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