John Mellencamp has been a victim of hype throughout his career. At the beginning, his manager rechristened him Johnny Cougar and marketed him as an American David Bowie and as a James Dean for the '70s. It took Mellencamp years to overcome the bad taste left by those tactics, but his hard work finally won him commercial success with 1982's "American Fool" and critical success with 1985's "Scarecrow."
So what happened? Journalists started overpraising the modest triumph of "Scarecrow" and comparing the Indiana rocker to Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson and John Fogerty. He didn't ask for these comparisons any more than he asked for the name Johnny Cougar, but once again he will suffer the backlash. Is it his fault that he's not a genius, that he's merely a hardworking rock 'n' roller with his heart in the right place?
It will be too bad if the whipsaw of excessive praise and backlash distort the true virtues of Mellencamp's new album. "The Lonesome Jubilee" (Mercury, 832 465-1 Q-1) is much less gimmicky and far more consistent than "Scarecrow," which quickly ran out of gas after its first four songs. Mellencamp has built on the gains of that record and has now made one that's solid from beginning to end.
Mellencamp is not a great songwriter. He struggles with words like one of his unschooled characters trying his best to articulate something deeply felt. Nowhere on the album is there the perfectly turned epigram that one finds everywherefinds consistently in the work of Springsteen, Robertson and Fogerty.
Nor does Mellencamp offer anything truly original in the way of music -- he sticks to the same country and blues structures that rockers have been using for a third of a century. It's doubtful that anyone will be covering these songs 10 years from now.
His limitations as a songwriter don't prevent Mellencamp from creating some powerful moments on this record, however. No matter how clumsy the wording or how basic the music, his empathy for his aging small-town characters is unarguably sincere and arresting. Mellencamp is the proof of rock 'n' roll's democratic essence: One needn't be blessed at birth with exceptional intelligence or talent to express oneself artistically -- one only needs hard work, persistence and passion.
This is obvious on the album's best song, "The Real Life." The characters this time are middle-class rather than working-class, but Mellencamp's lonely divorce'e and white-collar dropout share the same restless frustrations as his blue-collar characters. On the chorus, Mellencamp shouts out, "Just because I'm middle-aged, that don't mean I want to sit around my house and watch TV. I want the real life!" There's a desperation and hunger in the singer's voice that fills in all the gaps in his lyrics and transcends the music.
The real triumph of "The Lonesome Jubilee" is the innovative sound that Mellencamp, his band and his coproducer Don Gehman have achieved. After two years of live shows and secluded rehearsals, the nine musicians have mixed fiddle, accordion, dulcimer and steel guitar into the band's old blue-collar rock, in a way that the country instruments sound thoroughly integrated rather than merely added on. The band has incorporated two female soul singers in much the same way.
A lot of rock bands have experimented with fiddle and accordion, but none has insinuated these folk instruments so effectively into hard-rocking arrangements. Fiddler Lisa Germano, now a full-fledged member of the band, plays her solos with the dramatic edge and bite of a rock guitarist. John Cascella lays down his accordion bleats right on top of the rocking beat. The acoustic guitars are hit so hard they ring with a defiant attitude.
Mellencamp collaborates with his longtime cowriter George Green on only one song, "Empty Hands," which boasts the kind of detailed, evocative lyrics the rest of the album could have used. On his own, Mellencamp is at his best on tightly focused songs such as the painful confessional "Hotdogs and Hamburgers." His music tends to become as ponderous and as forced as his words when he attempts a sweeping statement like "We are the People" or "Down and Out in Paradise."
Though much of the album offers a rather bleak outlook on Reagan-era America, each side ends with a simple but seductive dance song that celebrates the ability of working folks to sustain each other with simple pleasures in hard times. "Cherry Bomb" warmly remembers old teen-age adventures in the same wistful tone as Bob Seger's "Night Moves" and Springsteen's "Glory Days." "Rooty Toot Toot" describes a tailgate party off a dirt road on someone else's private property.
Each song boasts a simple but delightful Memphis R&B hook. New band members Pat Peterson and Crystal Taliefero join Mellencamp for the smooth soul harmonies, but the fiddle and accordion sway in the background. It's an inspired combination.
The Beat Farmers: 'The Pursuit Of Happiness' Singer-songwriter Joey Harris has a flair for sturdy country-folk-rock stories and tender vocals that remind one of Mellencamp. His songs are the highlight of the Beat Farmers' new album, "The Pursuit of Happiness" (MCA/Curb), their first since Harris replaced founding member Buddy Blue in the San Diego quartet.
The Beat Farmers aren't as ambitious as Mellencamp, but they do have a redeeming sense of humor, which Mellencamp often lacks. And with three lead singers, two composers and two auxiliary lyricists, the group provides a refreshing variety of perspectives.
Harris sings a gorgeous version of Tom Waits' "Rosie," but also offers his own "God Is Here Tonight," a touching down-and-out tale worthy of Waits. Jerry Raney's songs have a rougher rock edge and are less consistent. Several are superfluous bar-blues exercises, but "Elephant Day Parade" is a funny, ambivalent song about drinking too much.
As every Beat Farmers record does, this one ends with drummer Country Dick Montana bashing out a country song in his broad baritone. This time it's a funny, infectious version of Johnny Cash's "Big River."