Ever since his first recordings with the Newgrass Revival Jon Cowan's high tenor voice and rhythmic bass style has marked him as one of modern bluegrass' most influential innovators. On his latest release, New Tattoo, Cowan explores the more pop-grass side of his musical personality. The opening and title song, New Tattoo, uses a fairly simple descending melody line coupled with lyrics that describe several acquaintances' inky attributes. Except for a prominent banjo part, this song could easily be on a twenty-something pop-rock release. 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, this song would be right at home on an early Sam and Dave LP. Cowan's soaring voice easily unites these divergent musical directions because he's able to "own" a song regardless of its genre. The songs on New Tattoo 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 Jon Cowan. The last song, "Drown," co-written by Cowan and Scott delves into the taboo subject of child abuse from the victim's personal point of view. It's not the sort of lyrical content you'll find on a traditional bluegrass album.
The John Cowan Band consists of Jeff Autry on guitars, vocals, and bouzouki, Wayne Benson on mandolin and vocals, Luke Bula on fiddles, vocals, and mandolin, Shad Cobb on fiddle and vocals, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Jon Cowan on electric, acoustic, and six string bass as well as all lead vocals. Guest artists include Patty Griffin on backing vocals, Darrell Scott on piano, Bryn Bright on cello, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Gile Reaves on percussion, and Jay Joyce on sonic onslaught. Joyce also produced and recorded the CD at the Tragedy studio in Nashville, TN. The overall sonics are studio slick with quite a few synthesized and semi-natural effects uniting several songs' ends and beginnings. Other than those bits of studio gimmickry the sound on New Tattoo leans toward the natural ambience that will set bluegrass and acoustic fans at ease.
Like Newgrass Revival ex-band-mate Sam Bush's last release, Laps in Seven, Jon Cowan's New Tattoo is less about blazing new trails than expanding those he's already walked along. But given the finesse and style of his stride, I think most listeners will thoroughly enjoy Jon's latest efforts.