National success and ‘90s radio hits proved a mixed blessing for Cowboy Mouth. Before the twin breakthroughs of “Jenny Says” and “Whatcha Gonna Do,” they were an all-for-one band with four front men, four songwriters, and a range of styles from arena to indie-rock to Americana. But after the hits, they tended to focus on the more obvious hooks—mainly their pile-driving rock side, and Fred LeBlanc’s larger-than-life persona. There were enough personnel changes to confuse fans, reaching the point where LeBlanc made at least one Cowboy Mouth album (Uh-Oh) largely on his own. And the discs took on a whomping mainstream rock production that didn’t play to their strengths.
The best Cowboy Mouth albums, particularly ’05’s Voodoo Shoppe and ’95’s It Means Escape were always the ones with a more organic band sound. So it makes sense that This Train...—made with no major-label input, and so far released only as a download through the band’s website—is their best in a while. And while the download includes no credits, it sounds like more of a band effort than anything they’ve done in years (If it’s another covert LeBlanc solo he’s gotten damn good at it, but that has to be John Thomas Griffith doing the big solos on “All the Way to Austin” and “Be Alive Tonight”). Vocally it’s more LeBlanc’s show than ever, but there’s a loose, live-band feel to the tracks, with natural-sounding drums and offhand shouts and count-offs. Only three tracks are rockers in their trademark vein: “Rock & Roll” is partly about Springsteen and the band-anthem title track is entirely about Cowboy Mouth.
But that’s followed by “Saturday High,” a workingman’s blues with piano and fiddle, and it’s more typical of this album. The return of the country/folk side is especially welcome, with “All the Way to Austin” saluting that city’s music scene; and sporting one of Griffith’s few vocal appearances on a call-and-response chorus. The end of the album offers three relatively gentle love songs in a row, for the first time since… well, ever. Breaking-up and getting-even songs are usually more LeBlanc’s style, and it’s a gutsy move to show this softer side.
Unfortunately they’re still prone to recycling songs from previous albums; the fist-waver “I Believe” is here on its third go-round (including a Saints-themed single rewrite two years ago), and one version was fine. But there’s a lot of new fuel here for the live shows, and it shouldn’t be long before the faithful start yelling for “Be Alive Tonight” and “Rock & Roll” instead of another 15-minute version of “Jenny Says.”