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Review: Mellencamp puts fearless touch on American classics

John Mellencamp, “Other People’s Stuff” (Republic Records)

In his youth John Mellencamp was known to be cocky. That brashness carried him to the big stage, where he became a stadium-scale rocker with an adventurous spirit.

He mostly fell short of the stature attained by contemporaries named Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, but he sometimes took bigger risks.

Mellencamp’s fearlessness is well-represented on his latest album, “Other People’s Stuff,” a collection of cover songs, some of them American classics, from four decades of work.

There’s a version of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” the old civil rights anthem, which Mellencamp introduced at a White House event in 2010. Mellencamp’s gentle interpretation may surprise those not expecting such soulful notes out of a white man from the heartland.

There’s also a slowed-down take on “Wreck of the Old ’97,” the iconic train song, and a Merle Travis song called “Dark as a Dungeon” that Mellencamp originally performed for a documentary about coal mining. Mellencamp’s earthy, cigarette-shaped growl conveys working-class honesty on both.

There are cuts that would fit in neatly on “The Lonesome Jubilee,” Mellencamp’s finest album, with accordion and fiddle enhancing the hard-charging vibe. And there are hints throughout, in the range of songwriters he’s embraced — from Jimmie Rodgers to Robert Johnson to Stevie Wonder — that Mellencamp’s brashness sometimes takes him where others won’t go.

That’s an essential truth about Mellencamp’s career that this collection reinforces with gusto — that even when the songs are not his own, the man takes chances.

Scott Stroud, The Associated Press