MONTECITO JOURNAL – February 24, 2005

ON THE BEAT
By Steven Libowitz

LIFE, DEATH AND CREDIT CARD DEBT

"While many could regard his style as intimate or meditative, there's a comedic side to David Cowan's music with such ditties as 'Montecito White Trash Barbecue,' a look back at his days of sharing the hedgerow district with Oprah Winfrey."

There are lots of CDs released by local musicians every year and we surely can't cover all of them. On the other hand, you can hardly expect us to ignore the sophomore effort from David Cowan, a former longtime Montecito resident who still maintains workspace in a highly coveted area of the village. Especially when the album includes a song titled "Montecito White Trash Barbecue."

Say what? You dissin' our digs, Dave?

Not at all, says the very unassuming and soft-spoken Cowan, an Ohio native who moved here more than 15 years ago. Early on, he found a small guest house on a multi-acre horse farm off Santa Rosa Road for very reasonable rent. It was a quaint and quiet hideaway in the heart of Montecito. Quiet, that is, until Oprah Winfrey bought that little spread nearby.

"Our neighborhood was suddenly inundated with helicopters and planes buzzing the place every weekend, here I was, little me, just a renter out here living quietly on some nice property, with very nice owners, surrounded by very interesting people. And suddenly there's all this media attention.

Lyric excerpts illustrate the situation: "On a perfectly foggy Sunday afternoon / Surrounded by the targets of the paparazzi / Hidden in the hedgerow, firing up the barbecue… I haven't tidied up since I can't say when… / Just up the road linger remnants of the ages / JFK and Jackie honeymooned there / Right next door Oprah's kicking back in the grandest of places / I'd like to welcome her to the neighborhood … close to the shore I hear ghosts laughing / At the ghost of Charlie Chaplin pulling pranks in the halls of his funky hotel / But down here I'm just flipping through these white trash cookbook pages / And I'm gonna have me a big ol' barbecue."

And those who know Cowan would surely attest, the new CD, "The Finite Nature of Things," is the perfect soundtrack for a lazy weekend backyard gathering for a guy whose tastes run more to "Mammy's Mashed Pee-taters" than champagne and caviar. Need more proof? The CD, like its predecessor four years ago (no one's writing blank checks to finance these babies, folks)is released under Cowan's rather inglorious band name, Clod Hopper, which the dictionary defines as both a "string, heavy work shoe" and a "clumsy, awkward fellow." The name was chosen for both references, Cowan admits, as well as a nod to American painter Edward Hopper.

With its even, mid-paced tempos and warm sonorous sensibility "The Finite Nature of Things," could serve as the soundtrack to the painter's dark scenes of the American life. But where the previous album, "Four in the Morning," tried to be all things to all alt-country-rockers, the new disc has a more cohesive feel. Indeed, only "White Trash…" and "Stout Dinner"– about his preferred pre-show meal of a couple of Guinness pints – are the only off-the-cuff songs on the collection, which is far more densely populated with autobiographical themes and introspective ruminations. If his debut was observations and commentary on the world around him, " Nature" seems to have sprung up from the inside out.

"It is a more intimate record," Cowan agrees, "I've been examining different aspects of my life from childhood, to current relationships, to the situation of trying to make it in Santa Barbara as a Midwestern transplant with no local roots."

But in such confessional songs as "The Other Side," "Alabama Rose," "Fifteen Days" and "Moment in Time" Cowan moves beyond examination into a territory you might call musical psychoanalysis.

"Each song is like a little vignette from my life," he says, "I guess there were some things I needed to get off my chest. It's a kind of life, death and credit card debt record. I've written other kinds of songs in the last four years, but these were important to me, things that were building up inside – about moments in your life that matter or opportunities missed – that I wanted to get out and move on. It was cathartic in that way."

No where is that clearer than on "Surely Follow" – which contains the title line among its lyrics – a meditation of regret and redemption over the unexpected passing of a close friend: "The sky is black over there... darker than I have ever known / I should have stopped on by when the light still filled the room."

His moment of reflection lingers, "You can look at a collection of photographs and realize that there are some absolutely pivotal moments in your life," he says, "But the challenge is to be present in the moment and appreciate what's going on."

If the words delineate a spiritual growth, Cowan's singing is moving in stride. Where the debut found him with more grit than grace, "Nature" offers his finest vocals to date, smoother and more on target, which he chalks up to experience.

"For years I was mostly just a songwriter and a musician who supported others," Cowan explains. "I played guitars in bands backing up artists all over town (The list includes Nicola Gordon, Jeff Bisch and Earl Arnold) The first CD was my first venture claiming authorship vocally for the songs I had written. So I think I am finding my voice. And I'm more comfortable singing in the studio."

As with other self produced musicians, Cowan has his work cut out for him, finding an audience for the new album beyond the South Coast. There's no major record company push or even a nudge from an independent label behind him. But he virtually sold out the 1,000-CD run of the last disc. The internet and some planned mini-tours are the next step. (Perhaps he should contact Oprah?)

"I just enjoy writing and producing, but of course, I'd like to get it out there too. Hopefully, other people will enjoy it, too," says Cowan, who has attended nearly every concert in the Sings Like Hell series, and speaks of his own growth as a result of it. "You can see where someone is coming from and it's comforting to know that they're experiencing similar situations. It's great if people can connect to these songs, but honestly, they were written from a personal perspective.

Click here to read reviews of the first CD, "Four in the Morning."

 

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