Thursday, October 1, 2015

Chestnut Street Incident: The Inauspicious Debut Of John Mellencamp (My October Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Some inventive arrangements, Generally good vocals and instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: Very basic sound, Repetition, Relies heavily on cover songs, SHORT!
The Basics: On this day in 1976, John Mellencamp released his debut album Chestnut Street Incident and began his impressive career in an unimpressive, though decent, way!

The past two months, I've been very light on my reviewing and that has included not having Artist Of The Months, whose works I immerse myself in for the entire month. That trend is changing today as I return with a new Artist Of The Month and a return to more regular blog posting! My October Artist Of The Month is John Mellencamp!

It is fortuitous that I begin my reviews of John Mellencamp's works at the very beginning today. Today is the 39th Anniversary of the release of the album Chestnut Street Incident, which was John Mellencamp's debut . . . though he went by Johnny Cougar for this and his second album. I chose John Mellencamp as my Artist Of The Month for two reasons. First, it is autumn here in Michigan and for some reason, when autumn hits I get a hankering for John Mellencamp's music. I don't know why. The second reason I decided on John Mellencamp as my October Artist Of The Month is because when I reviewed Mellencamp's compilation Words And Music (reviewed here!) back in the day, I essentially said that it was pretty much all the John Mellencamp casual fans would ever need. Mellencamp is frequently referred to by me as an artist whose best works have appeared on the radio or on his compilation albums and I figured it was about time to see if that was actually true. One of my goals this month is to find the quintessential John Mellencamp track that was never released as a single and is not found on his compilation albums.

That mysterious, grail, track is not on Chestnut Street Incident. Chestnut Street Incident is an interesting mix of Mellencamp's own songs and cover songs that have been arranged by Mellencamp, but it barely hints at the talent Mellencamp would later develop. That said, it's not a bad album, just an average one.

With only eleven tracks, clocking out just under forty minutes, Chestnut Street Incident is hardly dominated by the creative force of John Mellencamp. Mellencamp wrote four songs, co-wrote two more, and did five cover songs. Mellencamp provides all of the lead vocals and the guitar. The album was produced by Tony Defries and, like most debut albums, one has to wonder just how much creative control the young John Mellencamp actually had.

Musically, Chestnut Street Incident is straightforward rock and roll. The album is guitar-dominated and features Mellencamp backed by drums, more guitars, and more subtle keyboards, synths, saxophones and steel guitar. The album is pretty much what one would expect from a mid-1970s rock and roll album; emphasis on vocals and lyrics, some decent tunes, but nothing overbearing or explosive. This is rock and roll that is emerging from a folk-rock tradition (emphasis on storytelling) while managing to avoid even the hint of disco. What is most impressive about the instrumental accompaniment on Chestnut Street Incident is that it does not make Mellencamp sound like the leader of a garage band; the instrumental accompaniment on Chestnut Street Incident might not be extensive, but it sounds developed.

Vocally, John Mellencamp began his career with surprisingly indistinct vocals. While his interpretation of "Jailhouse Rock" is distinctly different from Elvis's version of the song, it is largely because of how Mellencamp alters the beat structure from the more familiar Elvis version. Mellencamp's vocals on Chestnut Street Incident lack the distinct gravel or strained sound that he would have later in his career. Instead, he has a smooth mid-register voice that makes its statements articulately, but without a sense that one is listening to a great or original singing voice.

As for the statement Mellencamp is trying to make with his first album, it seems to be that small town life in the heartland is hardly as wholesome as one might imagine it to be. Of the four original songs by John Mellencamp, perhaps the most distinctive is the album's opener, "American Dream." Mellencamp begins his auspicious musical career poking at the image of heartland America by wryly observing "Some of the girls are out teaching high school biology / And all of my boyfriends they work down at Cummmins factory / But me I'm still out on the streets trying to locate some destiny" ("American Dream"). Between that and "Dream Killing Town" (which Mellencamp co-wrote), Johnny Cougar gives expectations about America a smooth-sounding middle finger!

On "Chestnut Street" and "Chestnut Street Revisited" - which is essentially a remix and expanded version of the song that appeared only four tracks prior - Mellencamp makes himself out to be a decent musical protagonist has a keen eye for the way things truly are. With lines like "By the end of the day, all the kids would go play / And I'd come staggering home / With a dream in my hand and a master plan / That wouln't leave my mind alone / I compromised all my schemes / And fluctuated all my dreams / I'm just a small town boy bein' used like a toy / And nothing is like it really seems" ("Chestnut Street"), Mellencamp establishes himself as a decent musical storyteller right off the bat!

On "Good Girls," John Mellencamp makes observations on relationships, which fits the rock and roll theme. Not painting either men or women out as saints, Mellencamp sings "I don't wanna walk with you / And I don't wanna talk with you / And I don't wanna be with you / 'till the night time / Good girls have reputation / Good girls have to keep it clean / But you girl you're so damn reckless" ("Good Girls").

Ultimately, Chestnut Street Incident is a very average debut, worth listening to once or twice, but hardly a timeless or indispensable John Mellencamp album.

The best track is "American Dream," the least impressive song is "Supergirl."

For other, previous, Artist Of The Month, reviews, please check out:
Tunnel Of Love - Bruce Springsteen
The King Of Rock: The Complete 50's Masters - Elvis Presley
The Next Day (Deluxe Edition) - David Bowie


For other movie reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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