John Cowan is one of modern bluegrass’ most influential innovators. On his latest release, he explores the more “popgrass” side of his musical personality.
The opening/title track uses a simple descending melody line coupled with lyrics that describe several acquaintances’ inky attributes. Except for prominent banjo, this song could easily be a modern pop-rock tune. The second song, “Love’s Like Rain,” has a decidedly early Stax Volt R&B lilt. If you substituted a horn section for the acoustic strings, it would be right at home on an early Sam and Dave LP. Cowan’s soaring voice easily unites these divergent musical directions because he “owns” a song, regardless of its genre. The songs include three written or co-written by Darrell Scott, one co-written by Keith Sewell and Kenny Edwards, and one each by John K. Gulley, Mark Siros, Robbie Fulks, Ed Snodderly, Paul Buchanan and two co-written by Cowan. The last song, “Drown,” co-written by Cowan and Scott, delves into the subject of child abuse from the victim’s point of view – not the sort of lyrical content you’ll find on a traditional bluegrass album.
The album’s sonics are studio-slick, with quite a few synthesized and semi-natural effects uniting several ends and beginnings. Except for those bits of gimmickry, the sound on New Tattoo leans toward the natural ambience that’ll set bluegrass and acoustic fans at ease. The album is less about blazing new trails than expanding those he has already walked along. But given the finesse and style of his stride, most listeners will enjoy Cowan’s latest effort.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.