Saturday, August 23, 2008

Review: John Cougar Mellencamp "Scarecrow" [1985]

John Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" has always been near to my heart. The title track was actually recorded the day I was born! And despite my having never been on a farm, this record symbolizes what America stands for, which makes it easy to relate to. And considering how much of a drag rock became during the 80's, Mellencamp introduced a record which incorporated both the populism of Woody Guthrie and the spirit of the 60's garage rock sound to address the plight of farmers in the 80's.

Half of "Scarecrow" is the best album of the decade. Those songs make one wish the whole record could remain that strong. However, the other half could best be described as average to slightly above average, with a couple even easily forgettable. And that is sad because the great half is amazing.

Starting off with a bang, "Rain on the Scarecrow" paints a bleak picture which the rest of the record plays off. The pounding, foreboding drums set the scene while Mellencamp's lyrics present both pride in America and a disappointment in what it had become. Not only does he feel disappointed in what he sees happening to people economically, but also the destruction of a way of life and a history. The song remains the darkest on the album (although the music video is extremely colorful and the guys talking at the beginning are dressed incredibly funny).

"Small Town" walks the line between hokey and touching successfully because of Mellencamp's sincerity and the strength of his songwriting. It is a stark contrast to "Rain on the Scarecrow" although essentially being about the same place. I am probably the only one who cares, but the little bit of harmonica towards the end makes the song for me. It reminds me of those early Beatles records I listened to so many times.

The next few song are not as strong, starting with "Minutes to Memories." Basically it adds nothing new and just seems to be a rehashing of the same songs. It sounds nice though. "Lonely Ol' Night" is a very good pop song and one of the better songs on the record. "The Face of the Nation," "Justice and Independence '85" and "Between a Laugh and a Tear" make up the weak portion of the record (especially "Justice and Independence '85" which is just a stupid song).

But then we get to the great "Rumbleseat" and Mellencamp creates an emo song that is not annoying! What a novelty. It helps that it is upbeat, ending on a hopeful note, despite being mostly about being lonely and depressed. If I had to pick a theme song, this would be it.

The next two songs give some context on where Mellencamp sees America outside from the farming issue. "You've Got to Stand Up for Somethin'" makes sense for him to write because considering his active role in politics and takes into account world events and cultural developments. And "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." ties everyone from all walks of life in the United States together under rock 'n' roll. Again, another cool harmonica solo, but the best part is his mentioning of some of the rock 'n' roll greats: Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder, Jackie Wilson, the Shangra-Las, the Young Rascals, Martha Reeves and James Brown.

A bonus track finishes off the c.d. "The Kind of Fella I Am" is pretty dark as it delves into the jealousy and anger of Mellencamp or the character (if they are separate) with a touch of misogyny. It is reminiscent of the Beatles "Run for Your Life" with less psycho threats of violence.

Most people want to compare John Mellencamp to Bruce Springsteen and it makes sense. They have similar influences and political positions. However, half of "Scarecrow" stands up to, and even outdoes, much of Springsteen's work. Of course, the Boss has more complete records, but "Scarecrow" is an enjoyable record that everyone should own.

Happy fun times for all with samples!

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