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Headin' in the right direction

John Mellencamp - Freedom's Road
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Mar. 12, 2007
John Mellencamp

Review by Andy Argyrakis

On one hand, John Mellencamp can be an overblown caricature peddling patriotism and reminding citizens what its like to "R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A.," but there's a whole other side beneath the cheerleader persona that often gets overlooked. The Indiana rocker is a generally capable songwriter- not just in the ear candy sense of "Small Town" or "Jack and Diane"- but with true substance digging beneath the surface of predictable flag waving and troop saluting. Like his Farm Aid friends Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews, Mellencamp is clearly focused on his country throughout Freedom's Road (the first all original album in six years), though he's not overt in preaching politics or the banal Bush-bashing like the aforementioned.

Take for instance "The Americans," filled with a signature, sing-a-long chorus and a message that equates full freedom with accepting others regardless of differing opinions, tolerance over separatism and good old fashioned manners over bad attitudes. In this sense, he mirrors similar concepts as fellow pieces of American pie such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, though there's an ample undercut of Tom Petty-tinged roots appeal. While Mellencamp doesn't seem ashamed of that mold or his even older Americana influences, he's no direct copy cat, as evidenced by "Ghost Towns Along the Highway" (reminiscent of his Lonesome Jubilee sessions but in current contexts) and "Our Country" (think "Pink Houses" with an anti-bigotry approach). "Heaven Is a Lonely Place" rounds out the disc as a modern Memphis soul anthem, which following several minutes of dead air, leads to a jangle-drenched, politically-tipped bonus track.

Yet even with these streaks of strength and intelligence, some selections lack the immediacy of Mellencamp's mid-80s through early 90s heyday and will likely be forgotten as unneeded album tracks (similar to his last two Columbia outpourings, which remain in circulation exclusively for the singles). "Rural Route" is the most sluggish example, prodding along like an old time country tune (minus the southern drawl) and failing to fully develop, in spite of a few rousing guitar and percussion glimpses. "Forgiveness" also falls flat as a basic, uninspiring ballad, while even guest vocalist Joan Baez can't get the haunting guitar picker "Jim Crow" fully off the ground.

No matter what the equation, Mellencamp faithful are sure to rally around the release and he'll certainly have enough gems to muster movement at radio. And even outside programmers' play list, the peace promoting lyrics are sure to score him some additional points beyond the imperfections. While Freedom's Road may not be a full-fledged path to perfection, it points Mellencamp much closer to the right direction than he's been throughout the past decade.

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