August 1, 2009

Featured Release: John Mellencamp, Life Death Live and Freedom
Hear Music HRM-31635-02
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

John Mellencamp’s Life Death Love and Freedom was a career-defining record from a songwriter and singer whose shrewd commercial instincts seem to have kept him from having the hip "Americana" tag hung on him. But with producer T. Bone Burnett’s help, Life Death Love and Freedom brought Mellencamp’s talents into their greatest focus since 1993’s Human Wheels, and the result was a triumph. Best of all, the disc, which was full of warmth and atmosphere, sounded terrific. If the drums on "My Sweet Love" were mixed a little forward, it was a conscious effort to create the right feel for the song, and it worked.

While Burnett helped frame Mellencamp’s songs, it was the songs themselves that showed the singer’s renewed purpose and talent. By the time the album was released in 2008, Mellencamp had already been playing them live during a six-month North American tour, and eight of those live versions are featured on his new release, Life Death Live and Freedom. Live recordings let us hear how musicians redefine their material for an audience without studio techniques. And the members of Mellencamp’s touring band, who played on Life Death Love and Freedom, skillfully bring his songs to the stage.

The studio version of "My Sweet Love" opens with Mellencamp and Karen Fairchild singing the opening line of the song a capella. On the live version, the drums set the pace and guitarist Mike Wanchic (who co-produced the live disc) plays a guitar lick patterned after Johnny Cash’s guitarist, Luther Perkins. Some multi-tracked guitar lines are missing (though not many, since Burnett maintained an organic feel for the disc), but Andy York and Wanchic play off each other to recreate the original recording. The original recording of "If I Die Sudden" is spare and dark, but the live version is more driving and the drums play a prominent role. Mellencamp sings the tune in a higher register, and he sounds more defiant than in the original. He sings "Young Without Lovers" and "A Ride Back Home" with just an acoustic guitar, a marked contrast to the more fleshed-out arrangements of the studio album.

Life Death Live and Freedom was recorded directly through the soundboard with no overdubs. The sound conveys the sports-arena expansiveness of the venues, but you can still hear the details. The guitars snarl, the snare drum snaps hard, the bass thumps, and Mellencamp’s voice is up front and sharply focused. Perhaps most impressive is how clear and simple the acoustic songs are presented. Mellencamp trusts his audience to accept these straightforward interpretations, and they reward him with quiet attention.

Life Death Live and Freedom shows a musician at the top of his powers, confident in himself and his audience. It’s available as a single disc for those who already own Life Death Love and Freedom, or you can buy them bundled as a deluxe edition.

. . . Joseph Taylor