December 2004

John Mellencamp - Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits
Island/UMe -- B0003311-02
Format: CD
Released: 2004

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

The Smithereens - Anthology: From Jersey It Came!
Capitol Records -- 72435-77400-2-9
Format: CD
Reissue Released: 2004

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

by Joseph Taylor

The photo on the cover of John Mellencamp’s breakthrough album, American Fool (1982), showed Mellencamp (still known then as John Cougar) in a battered olive-green Army jacket, with a chopped Harley sitting a few feet behind him bathed in what appears to be a bright sunset. American Fool was Mellencamp’s fifth release, but that photo and the music the record cover housed were his Declaration of Independence. He defiantly proclaimed his Midwestern roots and found his own voice. The songs were melodic but tough and the record’s sound, carved out with the help of producer Don Gehman, was crisp and sharp. American Fool was enormously popular. The two hit singles it produced, "Hurt So Good" and "Jack and Diane" are included in Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hitsłan affordably priced two-disc set that contains 35 other songs, including two new tracks Mellencamp co-produced with Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

Make no mistake, Mellencamp has finely tuned great commercial instincts -- he writes great hooks. But beginning with American Fool, and especially on the albums that followed, he never wrote down to people and he didn’t write to a formula. The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) set stories of blue collar life in the Midwest to music that showed a strong folk and country influence. Years before Uncle Tupelo and No Depression magazine, Mellencamp was making music we now call Americana. Words and Music includes tracks from all phases of Mellencamp’s career, and one of the striking things about the collection, aside from its consistency, is how distinctive and versatile his bands have been. Early on, Mellencamp drew comparisons with Springsteen, who undoubtedly inspired him. The 37 tracks on Words and Music show him to be a songwriter very nearly Springsteen’s equal.

The Smithereens haven’t sold as many records as Mellencamp, but leader Pat Di Nizio’s songwriting gifts are nearly as acute. A new two-disc set, Anthology: From Jersey It Came!, contains 39 examples of the band’s unique combination of elegance and high-volume distortion. They sounded up-to-the-minute when they first appeared on college radio in 1986, but they would have fit just as well on AM radio in 1967 beside "Pushing Too Hard" by the Seeds. Full-on rockers like "Strangers When We Meet" suggest both the sophisticated toughness of the Who and the AM-radio sweetness of Paul Revere and the Raiders. Don Dixon, who in the liner notes describes the band perfectly as, "…tuneful and dark," gave them a wall of sound that had bite and energy, but he also knew how to highlight the tenderness of "In a Lonely Place" and other ballads. From Jersey It Came! contains a nice helping of tunes from each of the Smithereens’ five discs, plus some rarities, and you’ll dance your way through the whole set.