Revenge of the Holy Trinity by James Keast
The Cowboy Junkies release their best work since altering the face of Canadian music
In one single day, the projected path of the Cowboy Junkies was hijacked. Instead of doing the tedious things that Canadian bands have always done to gain an audience, they did what no one ever does - they became overnight sensations, and lived to tell about it. And that one day changed the face of Canadian music.
On November 27, 1987, the band gathered at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, and for $250 recorded one of the best Canadian albums in history - The Trinity Sessions. Since that explosion - heralded as much for its circumstance as its remarkable musical achievement - the band has faced criticism from opposing fronts. On one had, they have been accused of repeating a formula, albeit one they pioneered, on subsequent albums. On the other, that work has never been matched by the band that produced it in those extraordinary circumstances.
"I know what you mean," say the Junkies' guitarist, songwriter and producer Michael Timmins, whose enigmatic figure has always been seated behind the band's focal point (and his sibling) - vocalist Margo Timmins. "But if it hadn't been for Trinity Sessions, we wouldn't have gotten the kind of international audience that we have now. We might not even be a band right now."
Almost ten years later, the band might be stronger than ever. After releasing six albums with BMG, the Junkies have jumped ship to Geffen and just released Lay It Down, a remarkably subtle collection of personal songs that returns the band to its essential elements - Michael, Margo, brother Peter on drums and bassist Alan Anton - that reveals level upon level of musical depth with each listening. Lay It Down is a simple avocado of an album, bittersweet layer upon layer, outwardly straightforward, but deceptively complex, hiding at its center a succulent heart.
Since The Trinity Sessions, the Junkies' trademark sound was developed with the participation of strong guest musicians, yet they are for the most part absent from this effort. Gone are the haunting mandolin and piercing harmonica of Jeff Bird. The pedal steel of Kim Deschamps that coloured Sessions and 1990's The Caution Horses is missing, as it the bluesy wail of lead guitarist Ken Myhr, who traveled with the band through Black Eyed Man and Pale Sun, Crescent Moon. Many have heralded Lay It Down as a return to form for the band, having somehow wandered home like errant children to be scolded for their insolence.
The strength of Lay It Down is rooted in the strength the Junkies have always possessed, yet managed to hide - the talent of Michael Timmins to arrange a band in which he plays a largely unheralded role. Even the somber Trinity Sessions reveals - if you indulge in a little Junkies blasphemy and turn it up to punk rock volume - the quietest record ever made by a complex and layered eight-piece band. The decision to return to the core of the band was made as soon as they came off the road after supporting 1993's Pale Sun, Crescent Moon. "We realized that the things we liked the best about the last tour, the parts that felt good to us, were when just the four of us were playing." Although the decision has resulted in an album much lusher and fuller than Whites Off Earth Now - recorded in the Timmins family garage in another afternoon - Michael won't dismiss the possibility of going even farther back, stripping down the project even further. "I won't ever say we won't do anything. This is what we're into now." Even so, as the Junkies prepare to hit the road again, a prospect that Michael is clearly excited about, their numbers are growing - this tour will include a cellist, and Jeff Bird will again contribute his mutli instrumental talents.
One reason why Lay It Down has succeeded where other projects have stumbled might be the removal of the producer's burden from Michael's shoulders. This is the first record since The Caution Horses where he has shared the producer credit, this time with John Keane, whose previous work includes REM, the Indigo Girls and Vic Chestnutt. "Producing stopped being fun," Michael explains. "Having to worry about not only what I was doing, and what the band was doing, but how the whole thing was going to sound."
While most, if not all, of their studio explorations have been successful, the Cowboy Junkies have always been an engaging and entertaining, intimate and often wonderful live band. Able to balance their familiarity with themselves and the material with looseness and experimentation, the road is where the Junkies' reputation has been made. Last fall, BMG released a celebration of that tradition by culling a collection of their live performances and released the double-CD 200 More Miles: Live Performances 1989-1994. It's a wonderful collection documenting their development as a band, and the interplay they've had with different musicians they've toured with, yet BMG dropped it into a Christmas rush and then promptly forgot about it. While Michael acknowledged that it was part of the band's obligation to get out of their contract, the band maintained full control over the choice of the material, and gently insisted that it be a double. In fact, he seems quite pleased, despite its lack of hoopla, that it was made at all. "It will be something that people can pick up, and discover down the road."
Michael Timmins has gone from being in an instrumental band (just before the Junkies formed) to being a celebrated lyricist. Rightfully, he feels a little put out by the attention he gets for his lyrics - and the absence, often, of attention to his music - but seems perfectly at ease with the fact that the vehicle for his muse is his sister Margo. "Working within a family is easier because you know each other well," says Michael, who feels that having three siblings in the band serves to make tension easier to deal with. "We've known each other all our lives. We know when to back off." Despite the fact that Michael's words and Margo's voice are always associated, he doesn't use Margo as a starting point in the songwriting process. "I don't ever write with Margo's voice in mind, or the band in mind. If I start approaching things in terms of what Margo can sing, or what the band can play, I know that I'm limiting myself."
A fundamental part of the Cowboy Junkies modus operandi has always been recording and performing other people's work. Whites Off Earth Now contained only one original tune, and Lay It Down is their first album of music entirely written by the band. Their ability to inhabit other's writing with their own sound is remarkable, but in recent years, other artists have discovered the magic that the Junkies' unique sound can bring, particularly to film. The most famous of these is Natural Born Killers, produced by Trent Reznor (who is apparently a Canadiana fanatic), which made "Sweet Jane" a top ten hit again. "Sure, I've seen it," says Michael when the issue comes up. "It's always interesting to see how someone else is going to interpret your work, how another artist looks at things - if you consider Oliver Stone an artist."
But the quintessential merging of Canadian art forms takes place, appropriately enough, in another road movie. In one of the early scenes in Bruce MacDonald's Roadkill, Valerie Buhagiar puts on her headphones while travelling in a cab through rows of trees and jutting Canadian Shield on her way to Sudbury. For a magical moment, the Cowboy Junkies "To Love Is To Bury" melds our experience of the band with the most familiar aspects of the Canadian personal landscape - lots of space, time to contemplation and appreciate beautiful things.
One of the strangest contradictions for the Cowboy Junkies is the fact they possess that unique air that we identify as a distinctly Canadian band, yet their inspirations lie south. The Junkies have always used two of the oldest forms of American music - country and blues - as a departure point. "I think that's what Canadian music is," says Michael enigmatically. Canadian music, from the beginning, has been a crossroads for many different styles; allegiance to one wouldn't hold interest through a long winter. And the Cowboy Junkies have always inhabited Canadian musical identity; the winterization of music. The feel of snow blowing in your face on the way home. The layers stripped away. Coziness established in front of a fire. The quiet of acoustic instruments. The intimacy of creation. The strength of a tuneful melody, and the joy of a good story.
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