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Sad Clowns & Hillbillies [LP]
Vinyl | 180 gram
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Heartland rocker John Mellencamp released his 23rd full-length album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies featuring Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, on Republic Records. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies returns Mellencamp to the musical eclecticism that is, itself, a reflection of his wide-ranging musings on life. John Mellencamp is an authentic voice of American music and master storyteller with a commitment to creating traditional rock & roll, bittersweet songs of happiness and melancholia, and fervent political dissent. His passions and experiences resonate beautifully in this showcase of his music. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is produced by John Mellencamp.
Sad Clowns and Hillbillies is the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's follow up to 2014's critically-acclaimed, Plain Spoken, Mellencamp's fourth consecutive Top 20 album, dating back to 2007's Freedom Road.
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Top Customer Reviews
But all of that waned off a bit after Freedom's Road in 2007 and his music didn't really fit in with the music I was relying on as my soundtrack in my older age. He went folky/bluesy and I stayed into the Scarecrow-Jubilee era, with Freedom's Road being a solid album I liked. "My Sweet Love" was really good, "Troubled Man" and "No Better Than This" were good solid Mellencamp tracks. Not up to par with the obvious Mellencamp offerings - "Crumblin' Down", "Paper In Fire", "Again Tonight", "Authority Song", "Scarecrow", etc... But we all get older and we all change our views, our politics, our way of living and our music.
But today I heard "Grandview" and for the first time since 2000's Cutting Heads, I impulsively purchased a Mellencamp CD just based on one single track alone and with no regrets.
This is a great CD. Still has a round of the folksy stuff, still throwing in that bluesy stuff, but this time it seems more exciting than the last few records.
It opens with a really great groove, "Mobile Blue" (despite it starting out like it's going to be a sleepy mandolin/fiddle country porch song) it gets into a mature and slower later 80's Big Daddy-ish kind of groove. It rocks with a mandolin and fiddle but has a heavy guitar that Mike Wanchic has been known to do since his early days with John.
"Battle Of Angels" is a folk track, as in that old-timey Americana hook. It's not special but it's not bad, either. Heavy on the fiddle and mandolin.
"Grandview" changes the game on this album and actually rocks well. It's a track that could have been on any 80's album. His voice is a bit younger here. The groove is worthy of cranking up in your car or at home. Love that drum sound and slinky guitar.
"Indigo Sunset" is slow and sleepy, but has a great melody. Heavier on that Hammond organ, fiddle and a nice mandolin sound throughout.
"What Kind Of Man Am I" is a dirty groove that keeps you anticipating that drum that comes in 2:40 into it. Carlene is a solid counterpart to John's gritty vocals.
"All Night Talk Radio", another good groove and I heard a bit of a long-haired John Mellencamp in his vocals.
"Sugar Hill Mountain" is a sloppy hillbilly porch romp that works as a concert sing-a-long. Not my favorite, but not bad for what it's made out ot be.
"You Are Blind" is thus far the weakest track. Not what I want to hear when I hear Mellencamp.
"Damascus Road" rocks in a slower tempo, with minor notes and an ominous creeping and haunting melody. Dark and wicked is a strong Mellencamp trait, and this song does provide that with no apologies.
"Early Bird Cafe" could be a pop record if it wasn't Mellencamp. It is nice and works well on AC radio, but it sounds like John is reaching on this one. It does have a good hook, a good swing to it, John's vocals are a little too tired for such a song.
"Sad Clowns" is beginning to go into the Tom Waites field here. It's sloppy, fun, a little weird but not bad. John does Tom very well. And you can tell John had fun doing this number. You might, too.
"My Soul's Got Wings" is as Gospel Country as it gets for John. And I mean not in a Big Daddy kind of way. This one works for a Sunday gospel revival and is dominated by Carlene's vocals. it would work better on a Carlene Carter album - or a gospel choir's album.
"Easy Target" is the defining Tom Waites imitation. It's a very hollow and dark track, sounding like Tom Waites not being as ironic and accessible as he normally is. The message of our sad times is prominent and continues John's legacy of social storytelling in a damp kind of way. Where "Scarecrow" and "We Are The People" are John's darker side of life, this song is even darker and nothing more than a statement, a quick ditty of a social commentary that will get its point across, but make you depressed hearing it. It was a bad way to end the album, when "Grandview", "Early Bird Cafe" and "All Night Talk Radio" are stronger Mellencamp tracks that would have been great ways to go out.
Overall, the production, as late Mellencamp records are, is solid, ambient and again sounds like a live-in-the-studio kind of album. I used the word "groove" in most of my reviews of the songs because of the album, as a whole, has a groove to it, which is the best way I can describe what I'm hearing as I write this.
John seems to be getting tired, and it shows on a few cuts, but he's not getting lazy - at least not any lazier than he can be, as in "Golden Gates" on Uh-Huh, or "Weakest Moments" on American Fool. None of these songs are too tired and weak and shows John Mellencamp hasn't used up all of his miles yet.
Good record. It rocks in places and slows down in others. It has its fun moments, sloppy and gritty in others but overall decent. But "Grandview" is certainly worth the admission price.
I've liked Mellencamp since 1982's "American Fool", though I didn't buy an album of his until 1989, after which, I bought all of his back albums, and from 1991's "Whenever We Wanted" onward, I've bought each new release on the day it's been released. Believe it or not, I've never seen Mellencamp in concert (bucket list item).
"SCH" finds Mellencamp with Carlene Carter, who I didn't know, had to look up, and found she is June Carter's daughter, and Johnny Cash's stepdaughter. I'm not a true fan of country music, but like it blended into my rock and roll, which would explain why I had never heard of her, plus, she doesn't release albums very often. She can't save "SCH" from being just a middling album.
The songs I felt were pretty good: "Battle of Angels", "What Kind of Man Am I", "All Night Talk Radio", "Sad Clowns" and "Easy Target". Those songs either have a memorable melody line or strong lyrics, or both.
The songs that were just average: "Mobile Blue", "Grandview", "Indigo Sunset", "Sugar Hill Mountain", "You Are Blind", "Damascus Road", "Early Bird Cafe" and "My Soul's Got Wings". Not that they were bad song, they just passed right by without much fanfare.
You know, I've listened to all stages of Mellencamp's music, and honestly, I prefer what he was doing 1982-1998. The albums released during that time period were all pretty strong to excellent. Beginning with 2001's "Cuttin' Heads" his albums have been fairly uneven, incohesive, even. Between 2001 and 2017 my favorite album of his would be 2014's "Plain Spoken".
Here's how "SCH" compares to Mellencamp's other works:
1976 Chestnut Street Incident: Two Stars
1977 The Kid Inside: Two Stars
1978 A Biography: Two and a Half Stars
1979 John Cougar: Two and a Half Stars
1980 Nothin' Matters And What If It Did: Three Stars
1982 American Fool: Three and a Half Stars
1983 Uh Huh: Five Stars
1985 Scarecrow: Five Stars
1987 The Lonesome Jubilee: Five Stars
1989 Big Daddy: Five Stars
1991 Whenever We Wanted: Three and a Half Stars
1993 Human Wheels: Five Stars
1994 Dance Naked: Five Stars
1996 Mr. Happy Go Lucky: Four Stars
1998 John Mellencamp: Four Stars
1999 Rough Harvest: Two and a Half Stars
2001 Cuttin' Heads: Three and a Half Stars
2003 Trouble No More: Three and a Half Stars
2007 Freedom's Road: Three and a Half Stars
2008 Life Death Love And Freedom: Three and a Half Stars
2010 No Better Than This: Three and a Half Stars
2014 Plain Spoken: Four Stars
2017 Sad Clowns & Hillbillies: Three Stars
Calling him Bruce Springsteen 2.0 would not be out of line, he really is THAT good. Gone are the electric guitars, replaced by violins and dobros. It gives his rootsy, Americana music more of an authentic sound, while his ear for melody has never wavered, and his songs are not just stream of consciousness, but well thought out and executed songs for the discerning listener. I'm 57 and love this stuff, I can't say I would have liked it when I was 27 though.
If you like Americana style music, I can't recommend John Mellencamp enough.