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July 21, 1989 - Image 13

Resource type:
Michigan Daily Summer Weekly, 1989-07-21

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John Cougar Mellencamp (left) says he might no longer hit the tour circuit with his crack band: pictured
left to right are Larry Crane (guitar), Crystal Taliefero (vocals), John Cascella (accordion), Lisa Germano
(violin), Toby Myers (bass), Kenny Aronoff (drums), Pat Peterson (vocals), and Mike Wanchic (guitars).

John Cougar Mellencamp
Big Daddy
"Never had no weird hair to get my songs over,"
explains John Cougar Mellencamp in the confession
of a "Pop Singer"; fortunately, Indiana's favorite son
has got a crackerjack band, who generate the signature
riffs to bring across his heartland observations with
one of FM radio's most distinctive sounds. The gutsy
middle-American rock'n'roll of 1985's Scarecrow made
a strong argument for counting on the erstwhile
American Fool of "Jack and Diane" fame to prove a
home-grown talent bound to ripen with maturity -
and its successor, The Lonesome Jubilee, emerged as
one of 1987's watershed releases. While U2's The
Joshua Tree surveyed America's spiritual landscape and
Robbie Robertson developed the country's as-yet-
unwritten mythology, Mellencamp's musical Jubilee
celebrated bittersweet moral choices with an irrepress-
ibly midwestern spirit.
Although his visions of "Pink Houses" may have
once been criticized as mere Bruce-isms for those
masses cruising via International Harvester instead of a
Pink Cadillac, the soulful introduction of violin, ac-
cordion, and hammer dulcimer into J.M.'s Jubilee
established a personal identity, inspired by the no-
nonsense, organic celebration of Appalachian blue-
grass. Using neither synthesizers nor power chords, the
dense rock'n'roll hybrid of The Lonesome Jubilee
ironically managed to wring popular (six months in
the Top 10) success out of unsaleably populist roots,
And by enforcing a skeletal simplicity on the
group's arrangements for his songs, Big Daddy serves
to consolidate Mellencamp's strengths - while
equally exposing his more pressing weaknesses.
The J.M. sound, built around the woody, solid
whack of Kenny Aronoff's snare drum and the muscu-
lar, earthy grind of guitarists Mike Wanchic and Larry
Crane, has been honed down to its dynamic bones; the
sparse approach is signalled by the opening "Big
Daddy of Them All," where a plaintive accordion
alternates with swaggering blasts of slide-guitar-
chords, alongside a lone drumbeat. Tasteful back-up
singers, electric basses, and the sweet melan-
choly/howling abrasion of Lisa Germano's violin
weave smoothly in and out of the framework, the
instruments never clashing for space.
And on all of Big Daddy's finest tracks (7 out of
11), the band comes through with classic hooks like
the crisp, elastic Keith Richards chords of "Martha
Say," the bouncy, falsetto backing vocal of "Mansions
in Heaven," or the big-hearted, nostalgically beautiful
acoustic-guitar figure of "Theo and Weird Henry."
"Pop Singer," whose fiery grunge of guitar and fiddle

rides a funky undertow, is a virtual two-and-a-half-
minute crock-pot of tangy chops.
But without distinctive hooks nor the rhythmic
experimentation of the Jubilee's "Down and Out in
Paradise," the remaining songs on Big Daddy must fall
back on Mellencamp's vocal lines, which seem to re-
flect a haunting sense of resignation or even paralysis
in the face of despair: "There's a void in my heart," he
sings, "that I just can't seem to fill/ I do charity work
when I believe in the cause/ but my soul, it bothers
me still." And these declarations of conscience and
sheer guilt, while not as disappointing as the bland
populist cliches and klutzy vocals of The Lonesome
Jubilee's B-side, get ham-handed and annoying even
with the band's overdrive there to carry them over -
"she don't need no stinkin' man makin' no decisions
for her," sings J.M. in the first line of "Martha Say,"
and you know right off that its going to be his Femi-,
nist Power Anthem. Similarly, Mellencamp's vague
tirade against a certain "Country Gentleman" ("he ain't
a' gonna help no poor man, he ain't a' gonna help no
women") offers no specific or interesting insights.
One cannot doubt Mellencamp's sincerity. But at
its most troublesome, the singer's generic depiction of
oppressed people reduces them to mere types, like the
downtrodden Black people and farmers who populate
his videos as token objects of sympathy. "Jackie
Brown" is a heartbreaking ballad about a man "born
and educated and forced to live on the poor side of
town." But by concentrating his portrait on the wrin-
kles carved by ill fate rather than the individualfeatures
which distinguish people as idiosyncratic characters,
Mellencamp implies a disarming fatalism.
Whereas his Jubilee struggled to reconcile our right
to enjoy life's ephemeral pleasures with a responsibil-
ity to those "future generations/ riding on the high-
ways that we built," the Mellencamp of Big Daddy
feels trapped in a situation of decay. "There's a hole in
the ozone, and the rats have all got cancer," observes a
man who's fallen out of touch with old friends and
realizes "I'm not a young man anymore." And the
unsettling sense of urgency and fatigue which pervades
Big Daddy suggests that this 40-year-old father and
"Farm Aid" organizer might be ready to leave behind
his guitar to get "directly" involved in tackling social
problems, like relief-worker-at-large Sting. Mellen-
camp ought to accept his present occupation alongside
the farmer and assembly-man in the specialization of
labor: he may have never wanted-to be a pop singer -
but now that he's been blessed with the musical tools,
one hopes he'll continue to yield the uplifting
resilience of his uniquely American product,
- Michael Paul Fischer

The Michigan Daily-Friday, July 21,1989-Page 13
Various Artists
Shangri-La: A Tribute to The Kinks
Despite the presence of a wonderful picture of Ray and Dave Davies in
their school uniforms (1952), Shangri-La only reveals the staleness of
white pop music today. The fact that a whole host of bands exist simply to
wallow in 1960s guitar music and regurgitate its venerated classics demon-
strates the dearth of ideas in rock today. This has nothing to do with the
Kinks, for they wrote the best songs of all the 60s beat groups, and it has
nothing to do with covering oldies, which isn't a crime per se. The fact is:
most of the bands on this record - the Thanes, the Chesterfield Kings, The
Reegs, the Droogs and the rest of them - have fashioned modest careers out
of rehashing Brian Jones riffs and carressing their Rickenbackers a touch too
eagerly. Lost children yearning for a mythical musical age, some of these
lads go as far as simulating the Carnaby Street look from the mop tops of
their heads to the toes of their Chelsea boots. This music is embalmed -
not the tactile, fluid thing that it should be. I'm sure Ray Davies would
smile at these babes as he takes the royalty cheque out of the envelope.
-Nabeel Zuberi
continued from p. 12
cally, the very language in which rectly: "In a dusty cathedral the liv-
The Indigo Girls describe suffering ing God called/ And I prayed for my
constantly undermines their call to life here on earth" ("History of
political action. Take "Prince of Us"). In the same song the singer
Darkness," the album's most di- mentions ruins "smashed by the
lrectly political song; the chorus re- bombs from above." And the next
lates some of the horrors of con- line? "So we must love while these
temporary life: "And now some- moments are still-called today...."
one's on the telephone, desperate in Again, the call to History is under-
his pain/ Someone's on the bath- mined by the language in which it
room floor doing her cocaine/ is expressed. Once again in the liner
Someone's got his finger on the notes Emily writes, "Thanks to all
button in some room." But as for the unsung heroes who spend their
the Girls' answer to the problems? time helping the less fortunate,"
"I asked for Providence to smile and then she cites (presumably from
upon me with his sweet face." the Bible) a passage about prostrat-
Their dependence on the Holy Spirit ing yourself before the Lord and
to change History is incompatible begging for mercy.
with direct political commitment. And part of our inability to ef-
The Indigo Girls often rely on a feet change may be tied to our lan-
religiously charged dualism of guage. As Nietzsche said, "I fear we
light/dark to reconcile their world- have not gotten rid of God because
view; the first lines of the hit sin- we still have faith in grammar."
gle and opening track, "Closer to And while The Indigo Girls' lin-
Fine," read: "I'm trying to tell you guistic turns may offer a seemingly
something about my life/ Maybe contradictory challenge to the lib-
give me insight between black and eral folksinger tradition of social
white." Within "Prince of Dark- advocacy and activism - especially
ness" the narrator's "Sight grows in light of their place in a move-
stronger" as she is able to delineate ment of newfound autonomy for
good from evil - but how can she female artists - the ardent theol-
understand basic reality? "By grace" ogy behind their vibrant harmonies
- by metaphysical transcendence. is at least a step away from the
Indeed, The Indigo Girls depend predictable party line.
on a certain trust'in the power of THE INDIGO GIRLS perform at
the Word, and it informs their 7:30 and 10:00 p.m. Tuesday,
words. They seem to see language July 25 at the Ark, 637 S. Main.
as something given by God di- Advance tickets are $12.50.
O th l~g5 ATTENTION:
4byM-Care HMO
We are your
* neighborhood pharmacyl
" " " 11 12SUnversty 663-553
SDay9- 6,closed Sunday

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