John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies
Republic Records - 2017
Three years after releasing one of the best records of his career in Plain Spoken, John Mellencamp returns and gives featured billing on the album to singer Carlene Carter for his 13 song follow up.
Besides Carter, Martina McBride features as a vocalist while guitarist Izzy Stradlin (ex-Guns 'N Roses) makes a guest appearance and supermodel Christie Brinkley lends her voice to backing vocals. And while all that might be interesting for those keeping track of the minutiae of the album credits, the real star is always the "words and music" so let's just get right to it, shall we?
I'm not quite sure if Mellencamp intended to make what is essentially a country music album but that's the main thrust of this album. As much as I loved Plain Spoken, I found myself at times rather bored as I was listening to this disc.
The album opens with the song "Mobile Blue" which is a cover of the 1971 Mickey Newbury song. It's has a steady rhythm to it and lyrics that sound like a travelogue of cities being name-dropped but it is a decent opener. After that song though, it is a slog through the next three tracks. "Battle of Angels" and "Grandview" (with a vocal by Martina McBride) make attempts at stepping up the pace but falls short of being interesting. "Indigo Sunset" was the epitome of boredom with its deliberately slow pacing.
Things get better with "What Kind of Man Am I?" as the song starts off a bit slow before an increase in pace puts a little fire in the belly of the track. However, three minutes in, there's a drastic tempo change and it goes from a solo Mellencamp vocal to a kind of duet. It doesn't completely ruin the song but it was a sea change that did affect my overall enjoyment. It's one of five songs that were originally written for other projects he was involved with but not released until now.
"All Night Radio" wasn't bad, but "Damascus Road" would've had me begging for the song to end if I could've gotten out of the ocean of apathy I found myself in while listening to the track.
The first half of the album definitely left me a bit wanting, but I liked a lot of the second half of the album. Depending on how your musical imagination works, the song "Sugar Hill Mountain" sounds exactly like you think it should. It feels like a country song you would hear down at the old honkytonk on a Saturday night. It has a beat that will make you get your foot tapping but the drawback to this song was that John Mellencamp ceded much of the vocal work to Carlene Carter and made what amounted to a guest vocal appearance! Much like when Robert Plant had songs on his Lullaby and...The Ceasless Roar album that reduced him to being a guest star on his own work, this kind of thing just irritates me.
The last four songs on Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is where things really, and finally, come together for some truly wonderful music. "Sad Clowns" has a vibe to it that hooks the listener quickly and the rhythmic pace keeps your ear glued to the speaker. On the closing song "Easy Target", Mellencamp sounds like an old bluesman with a raspy vocal delivery as he weighs in on the state of the country.
The two liveliest, or perhaps I should say two songs with the most spring in their step, are "Early Bird Cafe" and "My Soul's Got Wings". The former is a cover of the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood track that has been a favorite of Mellencamp's for decades and he finally got around to recording his own version of it. As for "My Soul's Got Wings", I thought it sounded like a souped up and amplified gospel song. But a little research turned up the information that the lyrics are actually a poem by Woody Guthrie set to music. There's a nice use of the harmonica throughout the song and both Mellencamp's lead vocal and the backing vocals that come in later in the song give a bigger overall sound to the track. It is definitely the prime cut of the album for me.
I'm not sure if it is due to a good portion of the material being culled from other sources, but while there are a number of individually good songs on Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, the seeming lack of a cohesive whole ends up with me feeling a bit of disappointment in the finished product.
It isn't that the album is bad per se, but I guess I was just expecting or at least hoping for something a bit more.
Rating 3.0 out 5.0
Gotta disagree on this one. I know you are cool with that. Grandview is one of my favorite songs of the year! Mellencamp gets Mellencampy and really cuts loose at the end. I love this track and the album will sit on my Top 10 list.
Yes, we have a wide gulf between us on this one for sure. I'm not even sure that I will keep the album. It will not be making my list.