The first thing you notice is the sparseness; how the songs breathe; the distinct sense that you're hearing the Cowboy Junkies playing at a small club, or maybe in their rehearsal space. Turning away from the relatively lush arrangements that characterized much of their last three studio albums, their new release, Lay It Down, possesses a musical purity that draws you in from the first delicate notes of "Something More Besides You," the album's stunning opening track. Like most of the songs on the disc, it casts light on a relationship made tenuous by the lingering shadow of doubt and insecurity and the people struggling to maintain faith in it. And it could very well serve as the band's calling card. A case study in dynamics, "Something More Besides You" tip-toes from a deceptively simple, angelic verse to a climatic rock chorus, featuring grunge-like guitar, before nose-diving back down to the chilly stillness of another verse. It may be the most satisfying recorded moment the Toronto band has produced since the heart-wrenching beauty of "The Last Spike" from 1992's Black Eyed Man.
Margo Timmins takes off her boots, curls up in a contented ball on the couch and takes a sip from her tea. Our meeting, on yet another chilly Toronto winter morn, to discuss the Junkies sixth studio album (their first for new label Geffen) takes place in the closed rooftop lounge of a Toronto hotel. With the sun streaming in the large patio windows, the abandoned bar has a toasty, comfortable vibe to it. A couple of question, it's obvious reports of Margo's shyness, bordering on aloofness, are completely wrong. She is, in fact, very warm and talkative. Her enthusiasm for her bandmates (brothers Michael Timmins on guitar, Peter Timmins on drums and Alan Anton on bass) and, more significantly, for the band itself, is immediately obvious. But if the group's decision to strip its sound down represents a fundamental shift in the Junkies' approach to recording, the obvious question is why now? What prompted the change?
"Things just seem to grow - we never discuss them - and they usually grow touring. You do an album, then you take it on the road and play those songs as well as songs from years ago, and they change from night to night as the tour goes on and you begin to experiment with different ideas and sounds and it's exciting and usually be the end of the tour you can see where you're going to go next or at least have an idea; you know, 'oh I really loved it when it was just the four of us playing,' or something like that, which is what was thrilling on the last tour, so I think it's a natural evolution - you play with a whole bunch of people then you get tired of that so you go back to being a foursome and we get tired of that we'll do something different again," she explains.
But Lay It Down doesn't sound
that different that their last release, 1993's
disappointing Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, so why does it seem so
much better? Margo answers without hesitation. "I think it's the
way its recorded, I don't think it's such a radical departure. But I think
with Lay It Down we've truly caught the sound of the band. I think if
you've come to our shows - and obviously I've been to them all - Lay
It Down is what we sound like when we're playing really well, and
it's a sound we've always wanted to capture on
Michael Timmins in a separate interview, also credits Keane with helping to finally nail the sound of the Junkies in a studio setting. "I agree with what Margo said, I think John Keane did an amazing job of capturing the band and that's really important for us, getting the dynamics on tape, you know the sound of the instruments and the way everything interweaves, so I think this is the best-sounding record we've ever made, and I think the playing is better; with Pale Sun I think we might have rushed it a bit so that there may be some weak spots on the album - we did it very fast, we wanted that kinetic sound, you know, just get it down, but with this record we took a lot more time ... we did something until we were sure we were satisfied with it," he says.
Indeed the key to the band's sound has always been the subtle interplay of opposites; Michael's dark, sometimes wry lyrics cast against Margo's sweet, soaring vocals; beautiful, uplifting sentiments played in a minor key (for example, "Musical Key", written by Margo, from Lay It Down) and the duality of mood that characterizes most of the Junkies' music.
"Yeah, to me subtlety is the word, and to capture it in anything - writing, recording, painting - is really a difficult thing. Go watch a ballet, everybody claps and freaks out when the dancers go leaping across the stage, but it's the gentle dance, and the intricacies in the movement, that's the hard stuff they're doing, not the leaping," says Margo, with a laugh, adding, "and if that's done well then those leaps will look that much better."
And while much has been made historically of the Junkies vibe, Margo's ethereal vocals, and the atmospheric quality of the band's sound, few have recognized the brilliance of Michael's songwriting. He is a gifted lyricist who alternates between writing detailed, expressive stories packed with information ("Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning," "The Last Spike," "Bea's Song") and more concise, ambiguous mood plays ("Something More Besides You," "Lay It Down," "Come Calling [his song]"), the latter of which make up the bulk of Lay It Down.
"Well, I've certainly got some recognition for the lyrics, but, yeah, there is a general, overall felling that it's about vibe and the Cowboy Junkies' 'sound', but I think that the lyrics, whether they know it or not, are part of that sound, that vibe," says Michael, adding, "and there's always that problem that when the writer is not the singer, there's that whole thing in rock music where - and Margo gets it from the other direction, you know, 'don't you want to write songs?' - the writer who doesn't sing his own songs isn't taken seriously and it's a weird thing which only exists in rock music ... in every other form there are singers who only sing and lyricists who only write, and that's the way it was until Bob Dylan came along."
Lay It Down, while sounding like vintage junkies in many ways, does break some musical as well as lyrical ground for the band. In addition to the compelling dynamics of "Something More Besides You," "Speaking Confidentially" features the band's most overtly funky groove and both first single "A Common Disaster" and the hilarious "Just Want To See," about a couple going to the funeral of a friend, showcase Michael's dark sense of humour ("I don't want to be no patch on no quilt/ Tear-stained stitching linking memories to guilt/ I don't want to be no hair on no wall/ Blood-stained note saying fuck you all/ I just want to see what kills me."
But even here Timmins makes use of subtext, as vignettes throughout the song inform us of a couple being shocked by the funeral into reevaluating their own lives and, more specifically, their relationship. It concludes with: "Tommy, darling, come to bed/ We'll try and sleep away this sadness/ These memories, too, are bound to die/ So our dreams will have to serve us/ Tomorrow may be the day that our love betrays us."
"Obviously there's a lot of dark humour in it, but ultimately, with the last line, they're saying 'let's get it all in, let's live for now,' because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow," he says. And what of long-time fans who have never wanted the Junkies to stray beyond the melancholy and mellow sounds of The Trinity Session? Well, get over it. As Margo says, "To some people, yes, we're always supposed to be melancholy and slow and if we do anything different they're disappointed and that's too bad, but then we also hear the other side, 'oh, it's another melancholy, sow, boring Cowboy Junkies record,' even when we were doing a song like "Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park (off Black Eyed Man) where I was screaming, so you can't win." And with a determined look, she adds, "You just do what you want to do and what makes sense for the band at that time - you can't second guess yourself because it's really impossible to please everyone, so why bother" N
COWBOY CANUCK REFLECTIONS
MICHAEL, ON THE STRENGTH OF THE CANADIAN
MUSIC INDUSTRY IN 1996, AS COMPARED TO WHEN THE JUNKIES BEGAN, MORE THAN
A DECADE AGO:
MARGO ON THE ESSENCE OF BEING CANADIAN:
MICHAEL, ON AMERIAN KNOWLEDGE OF CANADIAN
1986 - Whites Off Earth Now!! (Latent)
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