If the energy of Cowboy Mouth‘s live shows could be bottled up, it would knock Prozac off the shelves. They’re not so much rock and roll — though they definitely rock — as they are a pack of traveling street preachers with instruments, spreading the gospel that is the glorious gift of life. Lead singer and drummer Fred LeBlanc is like Jimmy Swaggart on amphetamines, relentlessly whipping the audience into a frothy sea of the sweatiest, happiest, and hoarsest people on the planet. If you can speak after attending a Cowboy Mouth show, then you just weren’t giving it your all. Slacker.
And then there is the matter of their CDs. Nearly every good live band seems to have incredible difficulty getting that concert vibe to come through their studio work. Cowboy Mouth may be the poster children for this. Their recent trip back down to the minor leagues, after their 2000 major label album Easy, hasn’t helped matters, either. Uh-Oh, their newest, is good in the way that all Cowboy Mouth albums are good, though it’s not nearly as solid as Easy and has noticeable production flaws. Had they instead recorded these songs live at Jazzfest and released that, now that would have been something.
The album starts off rather oddly, with a techno-laced version of The Most Impossible Beatles Song To Cover But People Keep Trying Anyway, “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Surprisingly, they fare better than most, all mid-period Poi Dog Pondering and Zooropa similarities aside. “Disconnected” is the clear single in waiting, and it’s one of the best songs here, even if it’s a direct knockoff of Easy‘s title track. “Bad Girl” sounds custom made for George Thorogood, a lean, fast, cow-punk stomper that’s one of LeBlanc’s finest. “Tell the Girl”, on the other hand, is lazy, taking a generous nick of Deadeye Dick’s “New Age Girl”, and giving it an embarrassing expletive fueled chorus. And what’s with the turntable scratches? Those are sooooooo 1997.
The most distracting part of Uh-Oh lies in its sound, which is, frankly, awful. The drum tracks are tinny and muddled at the same time. The guitars don’t have half the bite that lead guitarist John Thomas Griffith is capable of providing. This sharp drop in sound quality also cripples some of the more saccharine songs, like the title track, which might go down better with a spoonful of well-produced sugar, something that definitely benefited Easy tracks “Marianne” and “Everything You Do”. LeBlanc has no one else to blame for this but himself, either, since he served as Uh-Oh‘s producer.
Clearly, money was an issue in making this album, and nothing exemplifies that more than “Better”, a song which originally appeared on LeBlanc’s 2002 solo album, Here on Earth. The problem is not that they’re using solo material for band efforts — they’ve been doing that for years — but rather that it’s the exact same version as the one on Here on Earth, including that god-awful trumpet solo in the break. It suggests that the band is fractured at the core, perhaps a side effect of the recent departure of bassist Rob Savoy. (Curiously, Savoy was not thanked or mentioned in the album credits.) As well as producing, LeBlanc has stepped up his songwriting duties, penning nine of the album’s 12 original songs and leaving Griffith and guitarist Paul Sanchez to fight over the scraps. The fact that they’re releasing LeBlanc’s solo efforts, with no musical input from the rest of the band, under the Cowboy Mouth name is either a brilliant cost cutting measure or proof positive that album apathy has set in.
Perhaps Griffith and Sanchez are okay with this, since they still make a mint on the road. But it does not bode well for the long-term success of the band. Cowboy Mouth were four very talented and distinct songwriters who came together to form the most versatile party band ever. However, as charismatic as their crazed drummer is, the absolute last thing that Cowboy Mouth should become is The Fred LeBlanc Show featuring Paul and Griff, which is exactly where they’re headed.
Uh-Oh shows a band at a crossroads, both creatively and professionally. Savoy may not have been a major contributor in terms of songwriting (though his “I-10 West” was a set list staple), but he was absolutely crucial in terms of ego balance — think George Harrison — and his absence is noticeable. It’s still too early to predict the band’s imminent demise, but one thing is for sure: nothing will ever be Easy again.