Thee former Mr. Cougrat’s latest offering, Rough Harvest, is a compatible collection of big hits and personal chestnuts, re-recorded with his fave-ravin’ fiddle-and-drum band, during rehearsals, gigs, and other moments gracefully gleaned from the glimmering old gravytrain. No more huge hits a-coming, probably, but anyone who once tapped a toe to, then started to yawn along with, Hootie, Ani, R.E.M., or for that matter Dylan’s once-ballyhooed Rolling Thunder Review (past Desire‘s “Hurricane”) will nevertheless find here dang near a whole album’s worth of purty pet (not pat) sounds suitable to shaking a stick or even a leg to (or at). Knee-haah!
However. Once I got used to jigging around at RH‘s immediately engaging hoedown, I started fretting the prominence of its folkie keep-on- truckin’ farm, good-taste-bound. Bumper crop of beats notwithstanding, was this not basically bad faith with the hard-(Coug Age)-won, and even harder-(198998’s Human Wheels, Dance Naked, Mr. Happy Go Lucky, John Mellencamp)-established balance of acoustic/electric, loud/soft, boy/girl “secret” alliances? Mellencholy comfort food for his/our downtime?
I mean, just consider a little ditty I know you know, about Jack and Diane. Ever the astute collector, Mr. Camp copped (one of) this song’s famous phrases from Garland Jeffreys’s Ghost Writer. GJ’s “Spanish Town” was as much limbo as ghetto, about a guy who’s “gonna suck on a chili dog”— seems like that’s all his Hot Latin Heritage comes down to. Likewise, Jack and Diane are about to see their chili dreams left on ice, down by the Tastee-Freez. But there’s something almost luxurious in the way John rasps “Ohhh Yeahhh,” and then positively flourishing is “Life! goes on-n-n”— one hand’s resting on the wheel, the other’s magnanimously waving another driver by. So, ” . . . long after the thrill/of livin’ is gone” still is, like, foreboding, but ends up presuming it’s got all the time in the world to be that way (and to take moody-broody satisfactions where it can).
My favorite bits involve the guitars. Acoustic serenades for Jack and Diane; mushy stuff offset by a remarkable refrain. Stern electric chords move in like a starchfront, only to meet a little patch of finger-, gum-, and even string-pops spelling out “So what?” (As in “What are you
rebelling against?” “Whaddaya got?”) Cherrybomb-flava’d topping, on such an almost just-plain-pained-abundance of ‘tude— thus, pop-wise, we’re given the pause that (still!) refreshes. So (‘tudinally), let’s compare Harvest‘s nice new versions to the originals.
“Rain on the Scarecrow” (1985) was where John got (some of) the bathetic pseudo-populist crap scared out of him by the reality of farms disappearing in an epidemic of foreclosures, every day. So “Jack And Diane” ‘s robust “So what?” became two notes endlessly repeated by a rhetorical worm of mechanical guitar: “Dur-dur?” automatically shredding a glare-ice storm over a farm being taken, burying John’s merely human, merely eloquent outrage. This current edition is merely (?) eloquent, period. And
“Jackie Brown” ‘s new purism dilutes Jackie’s possible solace, glimpsed in Human Wheels‘s more “commercial” string arrangement. Yep, mighty Rough Harvest, by crackey— those two were too old for geldin’. But the rest of it’s a trade-off that gets better all the time.
Human Wheels‘s title song is now minus some of the studio version’s catchiness, but
also its arty-farty vocal filtration. The “Losing My Religion” parajangle R.E.M.ains (electric!). One or two other numbers do miss Kenny Aronoff (he’s with Melissa Etheridge now), but new drummer Dane Clark (plus the return of Me’shell Ndegéocello’s bass and vocals) keeps a live “Wild Night” shoulderbopping past Van Morrison’s fancily nostalgic Tupelo Honey original. And the traditional “In My Time of Dying” ‘s buoyantly celebratory momentum makes Led Zep’s (copyrighted) 11-minute Physical Graffiti wankathon seem positively Spïnal Tap.
As for the (appropriately) smoother stuff, that Pied Piper glint in Dylan’s (Bootleg Series box) “Farewell Angelina” ain’t here, probably because Mellen figures we’ll never get out of this world alive, so rather than tease, he takes us on a merry-go-round tour of the song. Then he decides what the heck: his own “Minutes to Memories” forgoes its original antsiness to float a few between-the-Earth-the-Moon-and-the-Greyhound suspensions in its title’s process. “Under the Boardwalk” ‘s harmonies have a cookout by the sea. And overall, Miriam Sturm’s violin plays off Janas Hoyt’s vocals, as well as her own (and everybody’s rhythm): hazy one minute, prismatic the next. John’s never sung better than on this album, un-der the moh-woh-woh-ohhn, of course. Pawp’s Art!