John Cowan,
John Cowan
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

John Cowan has been down several musical paths since he was a part of New Grass Revival, and it looks like he might have found a niche with this new self-titled album. It's a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll, a little bit acoustic music. There's pretty much something for everyone, and something for everyone not to like as much as they do other tracks.

Unfortunately, "Roll Away the Stone," the very first cut, was one that didn't do much for me. It's a country-rock song that reminded me of a lot of other songs, with a wearisome groove that quickly becomes repetitive. Nor was I enamored of the second number, "All I Wanna Feel." I kept wishing throughout that no one would ever, ever again write a song with the lyrics, "I long for your embrace." We should have a contest to see how many songs, good and bad (most of them bad) use that tired old trope.

I started to come around by the third track. "Gotta Get Go" is a jazzy little thing that's a whole lot less predictable than the previous songs. And it's infectious -- you'll find yourself singing along before this one's over. "Nothin' But the Blues" is equally interesting in a jazz/blues sort of way, but I was starting to be concerned that the album had a one-note feel despite the variety, since Cowan had so far never sung softly. Pretty much everything, whether tough or tender, was laid right out vocally, with not too much subtlety.

"Wichita Way" is no softer, being a fun, up-tempo rocker, at the end of which Cowan holds a high note longer than I think I've ever heard a human being hold a high note. I'm impressed by the sheer lung power. The mood changes with "High Above the Power Lines," a more mellow, Native American anthem. Again, the high notes start popping up, and I begin to suspect that Cowan suffers from Maynard Ferguson Syndrome (MFS), which is defined as the use of high notes solely as pyrotechnics, with little real musical purpose, sung or played simply because the singer or instrumentalist can. The disease is hard to fight because most audiences seem to encourage it, despite the sneers of critics and fans looking for more intelligence and fewer fireworks.

"I Want You To" is a soulful, almost Motownesque song that works well for Cowan's vocal range, although again he falls victim to MFS, so that the held high note becomes the point rather than serving the song. The scene changes with a blues-rocker, "Mississippi Delta Time," that starts off hot but quickly becomes tedious.

There's a transcendent moment in "This River," a lovely ballad that Cowan sings tenderly and actually softly. A beautiful song, well done. We get into straight-ahead bluegrass next with "My Heart Will Follow You" -- solid and flawless. The Merle Travis song, "Dark As a Dungeon," is next, and Cowan's wailing voice suits it well. There's also an added original verse about diamond mining that helps to make the statement even more universal. Even though Cowan threatens to fall victim to MFS once again, the song ends on a soft and sensitive note.

"Sligo" is a lengthy instrumental that gives everyone a chance to stretch out in a Celtic/rock groove, making for some great listening. The album wends to a peaceful close with "The Last Summer Rose," a gorgeous ballad that uses Cowan's voice to excellent effect.

All in all, Cowan's album is a somewhat spotty one, due to a few sub-par songs and his penchant for sometimes using his voice as a siren rather than as an instrument with which to interpret songs. Still, long-time fans should find much to like here (except for the largest liner photo, which makes him look like a blond Charles Manson in the midst of a wacky-attack). There are some good songs, a lot of great playing, and some fine singing, when Cowan keeps a lid on the urge to howl.

[ by Chet Williamson ]



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