Back in the mid-'80s, when Athens, Georgia was the new Left Bank and all bands Southern were undergoing a great deal of public scrutiny, Drivin' n' Cryin' was supposed to have been "The Next Big Thing."
It never happened, despite the support of friend Peter Buck and a string of literate releases. The fault wasn't theirs, really, since Kevn Kinney and company never made any claims to being one thing or the other, an artsy rock band or a chicken-fried Skynyrd throwback. Nor, in a climate more receptive to alt-country and progressive bluegrass, can Drivin' n' Cryin' be considered purist enough to appeal to most fans, though there's ample evidence of those impulses on each of the group's albums. In short, though their skills as musical journeymen, and especially as a live act, was undeniable, Drivin' n' Cryin' was never experimental or risky enough to garner a lot of attention outside their home Southland (where they maintained, it should be noted, a fierce following).
Kevn Kinney's third solo album, The Flower and the Knife, is full of the things that made Drivin' n' Cryin' work, when it did work: his unique singing voice and skill at finding the right connection to make a lyric stick (like "When everyone was yellin' he had a place to go/Apple tree, rocketship/appleship, rocket tree," from "Above the World"); his direct nod to inspiration with a cover of "Ballad of Hollis Brown," one of the most harrowing and underappreciated songs in the Dylan canon; and a series of capable supporting players, from John Popper to Warren Haynes to Edwin McCain. The Flower and the Knife, like the best releases of Kinney's band outlet, is excellent journeyman work.
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That said, the album also suffers some of the same touches that kept Kinney's band from achieving greatness, the most problematic of which is the predictability of the music. There aren't too many surprises on this album, the way there were on the excellent Mac Dougal Blues or the acoustic Down Out Law, Kinney's two previous efforts; and too often Kinney's voice and words get lost in the production, which is slick and graceful and doesn't do much for the grittier lyrics.
Not all of the homage to influence comes off as well as "Hollis Brown," either; way before you hear Kinney's version of "I Shall Be Released," one of Saint Bob's most-covered songs, you have a pretty good idea it's going to be another straightforward rendition, and it is (like "This Wheel's On Fire," here's a song no one should cover again, until they can learn to do it at least as well as the Band did). Interestingly, though, two Drivin' n' Cryin' songs, "Straight to Hell" and "Scarred But Smarter," come off better than the original versions.
The Flower and the Knife, similarly, falls somewhere in between the poles; it's much more interesting than Kinney's band work, but not as accomplished as his previous solo albums.