You know how a Saltine cracker can taste really, really good when you haven’t eaten anything for 36 hours? Try consuming it any other time in any other scenario, and it’s hard to get past the outrageously bland taste or the uninteresting texture. You know they’ll never fill you up otherwise, but if you go long enough without having any form of nourishment, one of those tiny, square pieces of yeast, flour and salt can feel like a $500 steak crackling in your mouth. Outside of that, however, you rarely even give the things a second thought.
The Cousin John Band’s latest Southern-rock-influenced “Broken Heart Tattoo” is the sonic equivalent of a Saltine cracker. It’s not offensive by any stretch of any imagination, nor is it terribly produced or lacking in presentation. And lord knows these guys put their heart and soul into it, proving that even though it comes up short, you certainly can’t blame the disappointment on a lack of effort. But, man. From opener “110 Years” to the closing notes of “Dreams Are Yours to Keep,” you’d be hard-pressed to stay awake while listening to this level of cliched predictability, let alone actually pay attention to any of it.
Subscribing to the laid back, cheese-rock approach best heard from the worst of the Eagles and pretty much anything Stevie Nicks sang for Fleetwood Mac, The Cousin John Band’s struggle with finding ways to keep things interesting is perhaps the most interesting thing about the set. “110 Years,” “She’s Got Angels” and “Foolin’” — three of the first four tracks, mind you — all drown in a sea of mid-tempo banality. Lush, respectable backing harmonies attempt to bulk the whole thing up, but not even a month’s worth of P90X workouts could give these things weight.
Outside of structure, Cousin John Mobley’s voice is probably the next most prevalent offender. A tiny bit of Tom Petty mixed with a tad of Ken Block (Sister Hazel) and a whole bunch of “Whoa there,” it’s serviceable for the type of stuff the band is trying to do; it’s just nothing that makes you yearn for an a cappella album. By the time “Sarajane” comes around with its third-rate gospel influences, you want to be able to buy into what’s going on, but the previous seven songs have already made your ears immune to the constant twang and incessant reaching that Mobley’s voice embodies.
His lyricism doesn’t do him any favors, either. Case in point? Check out his “Like a seven-piece rhythm section/ In a Nashville love song/ But even leaves on a tree will fall/ After so long” passage during “She’s Got Angels” or the “Foolin’” gem that has him intoning, “There was a time/ Not such a long time ago/ When I didn’t want anybody/ Anyone to know/ Much about me/ So I tried/ Though sometimes failed/ To hold the line/ And alone I sailed.” Again, his heart’s in the right place, and you can’t fault the guy for trying … but Bruce Springsteen or Van Morrison, John Mobley is not. Even when he tries to be earnest, the whole operation feels just a little too self-serious to take seriously.
That’s probably why the set’s best moment comes from guitarist Joe Goltz and the charming “Lenore’s Out!” A goofy, fun little ditty highlighted by playful whistling and tasteful saxophone, it’s a welcome change from the heavy-hearted nature of what surrounds it. Plus, as a bonus, Goltz’s voice knows when to rise and fall with both precision and feeling. Not to be outdone is “Baby Baby,” which works well with its quick groove and blues guitars. Not only does it add some variety to the listen, but it also proves that there’s potential somewhere within Cousin John and his band of merry mellow-ers.
Actually, it’s that last invented word that ultimately bogs the record down and overshadows those brief moments of breakthrough. Because for every “Lenore’s Out!,” there’s a “Leather and Steel” lurking in the shadows, waiting to bring the mood down and the attention into a constant state of deficit. It wouldn’t be nearly as bad if Mobley could simply just get out of his own way more than once in a while, but especially in the case of “Leather,” his constant obsession with a forced mood and super-serious undertones make some spots almost laughable.
Which is, of course, the last thing The Cousin John Band wants to achieve with “Broken Heart Tattoo.” Yet what they seemingly fail to understand is that their shtick would be infinitely easier to embrace if they lightened up every now and then and dug their way out of the mid-tempo, watered-down classic-rock vibe from which they can’t get away. There’s nothing wrong with such style, remember — Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles crafted songs that will last for generations, and rightfully so — but in the case of this D.C.-area knockoff, they’d be better served if they started aiming more for the taste of a Ritz than they do the uninteresting flavor of a Saltine.
At the end of the day, even the hungriest of the hungry might have trouble choking the majority of these songs down. Brand-name or not.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **