Nick Bollinger discusses a topical set from alt-country Canadians - Cowboy Junkies.
It is thirty years since three siblings and a bass player from Ontario released a record that, you could argue, started the alt-country movement. Recorded in a Toronto church, Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session remains a landmark album; an album that managed to cross the high lonesome sound of country with the dark minimalism of the Velvet Underground.
While they certainly made some good music after The Trinity Session, it seemed as though that album had created for them as much of a millstone as a milestone. Partly it was the fact that, scattered amongst the originals on that classic, had been a few towering covers. Their reading of Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ was so desolate it made Hank’s seem almost jaunty by comparison, while Lou Reed bestowed on their version of his song ‘Sweet Jane’ the ultimate accolade: “the best and most authentic version… I have ever heard.”
Yet all this seemed to permanently overshadow the fact that the group had, in Michael Timmins, a very good songwriter of its own, which I’m reminded of listening to All That Reckoning.
As an analysis of the origins of hate speech – ‘get the folks to fear… it only takes one small twist to kick it up a gear’ – ‘The Things We Do To Each Other’, is timely and right on the mark. And, as always, Timmins has the perfect mouthpiece in sister Margo Timmins, whose voice sounds as pure-yet-world-weary as ever.
It’s one of a number of songs here that seem to find the Timmins’s surveying the current social-political landscape.
If there’s been a shift in this group’s perspective over the decades, then this is the most obvious one to me; from expressions of personal grief – which they did so well in songs like ‘Misguided Angel’ and ‘To Love Is To Bury’ – to songs that mourn what’s going on in the outer world, though the effect is not always that different. ‘I’m gonna start this song in a low dark whisper…’ sings Margo Timmins at the start of ‘Nose Before Ear’ – but then didn’t she always?
Sonically, Cowboy Junkies have never really tried to recapture the particular tone of Trinity – which was recorded live with a single, extremely well-placed microphone. On the new album they seem to have developed a particular fondness for backwards guitar.
And though Trinity may have had them pinned as the world’s quietest – and slowest - rock band, the tempos, as much as the volume, have picked up over the years and when the Canadians sing about the nation next door in ‘Sing Me A Song’ they unleash a sonic fury.
There’s no question listening to this that you’re hearing a real band; one that, remarkably, has existed continuously without a line-up change for more than three decades. Whatever else they have done during that time, this latest album finds them sounding engaged and energised. If like me, Cowboy Junkies have been off your radar for a while, All That Reckoning is good enough to make it worth catching up.