Always Take Me Back
First Appeared at The Music Box, May 2002, Volume 9, #5
Written by John Metzger
In the early 1970s, New Grass Revival was born. The group — which featured John Cowan, Sam Bush, and Béla Fleck — reinterpreted bluegrass for the hippie generation. Purists, no doubt, were appalled, but the band’s merging of electric and acoustic instrumentation fueled the natural expansion of bluegrass to also include jazz and rock styles. Therefore, it’s safe to say that without New Grass Revival, there never would have been a Leftover Salmon.
Not surprisingly, then, Drew Emmitt called upon the John Cowan Band (as well as Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, Randy Scruggs, Ronnie McCoury, and Peter Rowan) to provide the musical support for his songs on his solo debut Freedom Ride. With its bluegrass flair, the album extends many of the themes and ideas first explored on Leftover Salmon’s The Nashville Sessions, while pouring over similar acoustic-oriented ground. For this outing, Emmitt recycles several Leftover Salmon favorites (Bend in the River and Lonesome Road), pens a few new ones, and tosses in several carefully selected covers (Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue, Peter Rowan’s Rainmaker, J.J. Cale’s If You’re Ever in Oklahoma, and Joel Price’s Memories of Mother and Dad — a favorite of the legendary Bill Monroe).
With all this talent and inspiration, one might expect a fully diverse exploration of the bluegrass genre. And, from an instrumental perspective, it is quite a treat. Tangled Up in Blue is sped up to form a whirlwind of Celtic rock, setting sail on a breezy foundation of mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. Bend in the River blends bluegrass with zydeco and features tighter, more elaborate instrumentation than the previously available version on Leftover Salmon’s Ask the Fish. And, Paving Eisenhower is a full-blown hoedown, showcasing the virtuosity of the band that Emmitt has assembled.
Taken as a whole, however, the songs on Freedom Ride tend to blur together. This is largely due to Emmitt’s thin voice and frequently unemotional delivery. What made The Nashville Sessions such a successful outing for Leftover Salmon was the variety of vocalists that the band employed. Too bad Emmitt didn’t utilize that same strategy for Freedom Ride. It would have put it over the top.
At least Emmitt’s disc can be described as a success. John Cowan’s latest release Always Take Me Back is nearly a total train wreck. For whatever reason, Cowan has explored everything except bluegrass since establishing himself as a solo artist, and his latest outing is no exception. This time, Cowan attempts to bend progressive rock into a bluegrass format — even going so far as to cover Yes’ Long Distance Runaround. While one has to admire his courage, quite frankly, it just doesn’t work.
For the record, not all of the songs on Always Take Me Back delve into progressive rock, but he also doesn’t have any greater success with them. In My Father’s Field is a lightweight pop snoozer, and They Always Take Me Back sounds like a watered-down track from Drew Emmitt’s disc. Perhaps the best song is the emotionally raw 18 Years, but it winds up wrapped in too much glossy production. At some point in his career, Cowan is going to have to get back on track. This one isn’t it.
Freedom Ride — ½
Always Take Me Back — ½
Of Further Interest...
Freedom Ride is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
Always Take Me Back is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box