THE CAUTION HORSES, the new album by Toronto's Cowboy Junkies, represents a very large and well-thought out leap forward for the band. This time out Cowboy Junkies offer a studio album which showcases a lyrical, vocal and instrumental variety which leaps from a sparseness reminiscent of THE TRINITY SESSION's "Postcard Blues" to a lushness perhaps only anticipated by that album's "Misguided Angel" and "To Love Is To Bury".
However, as band leader Michael Timmins notes, "In recording THE CAUTION HORSES the way we did, we did not abandon the foundation owe laid in THE TRINITY SESSION. THE TRINITY SESSION contained the seeds of THE CAUTION HORSES and THE CAUTION HORSES is faithful, in its way, to its roots. To a listener who has seen us live over the past year, the contrast between THE TRINITY SESSION and CAUTION HORSES will not seem stark, but to a pair of unaccustomed ears, it may be something of a surprise." Indeed, the new album may provide an experience which is both.
To singer Margo Timmins, THE TRINITY SESSION was an album "intentionally dominated by a single tone and mood". The mood, now well known for its "ethereal nature," was also very much a reflection of Cowboy Junkies' development as of that cold November day in 1987 when it was recorded at Trinity Church. It expressed, as Margo puts it, "a kind of shyness and innocence."
On CAUTION HORSES, Cowboy Junkies team up again with Peter Moore, who this time shares the production duties with band-leader Michael Timmins. CAUTION HORSES was produced at Toronto's Eastern Sound. According to Michael, "though working in the studio did represent something of a departure for us, we did in fact perform in virtually the same manner as we did for THE TRINITY SESSION. CAUTION HORSES is, once again, a live, off-the-floor recording that was completed essentially in one day. I think you'll find that while different, the sound we achieved on CAUTION HORSES is very reminiscent of THE TRINITY SESSION. For one thing we used the Calrec Soundfield Ambisonic Microphone again. The reason we opted for a multi-track studio recording this time was the flexibility we knew it would give us when we came to mix the album".
But for the band, the technological development from THE TRINITY SESSION to THE CAUTION HORSES (the latter was recorded on state-of-the-art "Sony PCM-3348," 48-track digital equipment) is not as significant as is the evolution of the songwriting perspective. Says Margo, "THE TRINITY SESSION's songs had fairly black-and-white story lines - which was quite deliberate on our part, both when we were writing and when we were choosing songs to cover. The songs on CAUTION HORSES are much more complex and they also focus on a single theme. I think that taken together they present a pretty intriguing view of love".
CAUTION HORSES features 8 original songs with two carefully chosen covers ("Powderfinger" by Neil Young and "You Will Be Loved Again" by fellow Torontonian, Mary Margaret O'Hara. All eight songs were written by Michael, with the exception of "Witches", co-written with his sister. "Michael and I have always been extremely close and we often have a way of communicating without speaking. When Michael writes a song I know he has in mind the fact that I will be singing it - but it is still a song essentially from a man's (his) perspective. I see my role more as his interpreter than his inspiration. I spend a great deal of time trying to get my vocal presentation, and the female perspective, of each of his songs just right." For his part, Michael says that "Margo's interpretation of my songs often takes them in a direction I hadn't expected or brings out an aspect of them I hadn't really focused on."
With the emphasis in CAUTION HORSES placed so clearly on the songs, it was, according to Margo, "Important that my vocal presentation accurately reflect my reading of each song's content. Because they all express different emotions, I have to pitch my voice differently each time." Say Michael, "On THE TRINITY SESSION, Margo's voice rarely departed, deliberately, from a pure "ethereal" tone. That presentation made sense in the context of our songs and the room in which we were recording - to have stuck with it this time out wouldn't have made much sense."
CAUTION HORSES, in its perspective of the place of love in the modern day, constitutes, for Cowboy Junkies, a poetic and technological rite of passage from innocence to experience, both in recording technique and in the vocal and instrumental expression of the songs," says Michael. "When it came to writing and recording CAUTION HORSES, the band as a whole was far more mature and experienced." But it would be misleading to see THE TRINITY SESSION as an expression of innocence and CAUTION HORSES as one of world-weary experience. According to Margo, "there is really no clear delineation between the two, either spiritually or technically." Perhaps CAUTION HORSES represents Cowboy Junkies' songs of experienced innocence.
Michael's songs feature a series of protagonists each in their own way trapped in a situation that is sometimes of their own making and sometimes not. This is in some cases presented quite literally as in "Thirty Summers": "Caught in the vice of heaven and earth he turned his life into a cell/ Imprisoned by the doubts that hound us all/ And those desires which we all know so well." In some instances it is presented as an emotional state as in "Witches": "I shiver with delight, I shiver with fear/ My heart wants to go/ But my soul's filled with fear."
The album's two covers also underline this theme. According to Margo, "Powderfinger", which concludes the first half of the album, was "placed there for a reason, it's a kind of thematic end-piece. "Powderfinger's" most dominant and powerful image is of an individual's lone stand against a faceless, almost omnipotent, force."
To Margo, "the universe of THE CAUTION HORSES offers no clear-cut answers, no unalloyed loves and no unbroken promises." The songs suggest the all too familiar wolrld of broken promises and compromised love. However, says Margo, "In each of Michael's songs, no matter how desperate the situation, I see hope and the possibility of love's renewal - that's what I try to bring out when I sing them. For example, one way to think of "Rock and Bird" is as a look at the subject of a rejected love ("I offered you my endless skies/ You countered with hoods and chains") that seemingly ends with defection (This song I sing will be the last/ To be inspired by your memory"). But I don't feel that is the end of it - she may be down, but she is definitely not out. The speaker finds a way, and by the end of the song she has been able, shmehow to accommodate both her concept of eternal love ("Bird with unbarred wings") and common sense ("Rock with weighted heart"). As I see it, that's how she is able to triumph over her misfortune."
A similar theme is picked up in "Where Are You Tonight?" The speaker here seems caught in a relationship with a boyfriend who is high on "barroom rap" and low on sensitivity. While she dreams of a prince to "grant all my wishes," he promises her a historic drag race on the backroads which will leave dust "lingering like a song." Margo: "By the end of the song she has become so disassociated from her plight that she can't even recognize herself in the mirror";
"Then I catch us in the barroom mirror with his arm around my shoulder this girl I see has grown so unfamiliar and as she stands to leave with a stranger by her side she can't help but laugh at a life grown so peculiar."
But the speaker believes in love and in dreams, and it is this belief that makes her existence in her dreary backwoods world acceptable.
"I think that THE CAUTION HORSES is distinctly non-romantic acceptance of life's reverses and heart-aches," suggests Michael. But, perhaps because of Margo's reading her brother's songs, in THE CAUTION HORSES this acceptance is coupled with a lingering sense of optimism and hope which makes life itself, and the renewal of love, possible. Margo: "I think it was Oscar Wilde who once said, 'We are all in the gutter, it is just that some of us have our gaze fixed on the stars.' That makes me think of many of the people in Michael's songs." For example, in "Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning," a lover pines for a lost love and finds comfort and strength in her isolation: Margo sings,
Maybe tonight it's a movie/ with plenty of room for elbows and knees/ (A bag of popcorn to myself),/ black and white with a strong female lead/ and if I don't like it, no debate, I'll leave."
Cowboy Junkies' choice of instrumentation has always dovetailed with the thematic content of individual songs, but on THE CAUTION HORSES this is even more so. In particular the moody, atmospheric bass of Alan Anton and the spare drumming of Peter Timmins seem at times to perfectly echo and reinforce each one's theme. Nowhere is this more true than on "Mariner's Song" and "Rock and Bird". The bass has always played an enormously important role in the music of Cowboy Junkies. On this album, Alan Anton entrenches is role and leaves the listener wondering if this often over-looked member is not in some way the "quintessential Cowboy Junkie."
Appearing again with the Cowboy Junkies are side-men Jeff Bird (mandolin, fiddle and harmonica", Jaro Czerwinec (accordion) and Kim Deschamps (pedal steel, lap steel and dobro). This time around, however, the band is joined by a new member, percussionist David Houghton.
Toronto's Cowboy Junkies have been around much longer than most people think. THE TRINITY SESSION was not, in fact, their debut album but a follow-up to their initial release WHITES OFF EARTH NOW!! Like THE TRINITY SESSION, WHITES OFF EARTH NOW!! Was a digital two-track recording that utilized a Calrec microphone and was recorded in one day at, according to the liner notes "Studio 547 on June 28, 1986" (then band's garage!). Cowboy Junkies toured extensively on the bar-circuit throughout North America on the strength of this independent album.
On November 27, 1987 the band went to Toronto's Trinity Church and in 14 hours captured the sound that was to put them on their way to the New Music Seminar (June 1988). The success of THE TRINITY SESSION startled the music industry and the band eventually parlayed their sparse, haunting record (recorded for a mere $250) into sales of almost one million worldwide.
The success of THE TRINITY SESSION caught Cowboy Junkies by surprise as well. The band began touring North America in support of their album in November of 1988 and, as sales of THE TRINITY SESSION began to take off, found themselves almost constantly on the road (in North America, Europe and the Far East) throughout 1989.
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