ALBUM REVIEW: John Mellencamp opens the vault on ‘Other People’s Stuff’

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John Mellencamp, Other People's Stuff

Over the last three decades, John Mellencamp has covered a variety of musical styles, songs and rhythms under the umbrella of heartland rock. On his newest offering, Mellencamp digs deep into the archives of his musical experience. An homage to some of the greatest songwriting feats in history, Other People’s Stuff is emblematic of John Mellencamp’s storytelling ability and his time-tested musicality.

Other People’s Stuff
John Mellencamp
Republic Records, Dec. 7

Mellencamp selects some oldies through which he weaves beautiful orchestration and thoughtful narratives. The powerhouse cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Gambling Bar Room Blues” tells a familiar story of a man who can’t overcome his drunken ways and the havoc his habit wrecks on his life. Mellencamp injects incredible energy into this 1932 cut, just like he did in 1997 when he covered it the first time. Tambourines and twangy country vocals embellish the song’s familiar acoustic melody.

His rendition of “Wreck of The Old 97,” a song that chronicles a 1903 railway disaster, incorporates harmonicas and steel guitars. The story of tragedy and greed gives the tune an aura of folksy melancholy.

Other People’s Stuff spotlights the vocal range that John Mellencamp has displayed throughout his career. Certain tracks sound almost like they were sung by different people. The star-crossed love song “Mobile Blue” resonates because of his exploration of the depths of his melodies. This gives a somber feel to tracks like “Dark As a Dungeon,” about mining life.

Mellencamp uses his baritone octave on that song, as if his voice is a representation of the miner deep underground. Yet, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” and others showcase the higher range of his vocal abilities. It’s incredible the same man sings both songs.

“Eyes on the Prize” is perhaps the most enduringly influential cut on the album. Mellencamp captures the spirit of the folk song, which was written during the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s about the struggles of early slaves. Mellencamp released this cover in time for midterm elections, re-contextualizing the song’s symbolism for the current political climate. The Tom Waits-esque grit of his voice adds emotional integrity, while the outlaw country twang provides urgency.

Although this is a covers album, John Mellencamp has no trouble bringing originality to these classics. Other People’s Stuff is a compilation of his own design. Although decades span between certain songs, the album avoids discontinuity. Thirty years into his career, Mellencamp still manages to bring something exciting to the heartland rock template.

Follow writer Piper Westrom at Twitter.com/plwestrom.