Paste Magazine, Issue 31 May 2007
Bonds, Familiar Bonds
The Junkies expand the palette for one of their best records
by Mark Richardson



* * * 1/2


At The End of Paths Taken
[ZOE/ROUNDER]

The best Cowboy Junkies album just so happens to be their best-known. Their sophomore release, The Trinity Session, originally issued on the band's own Latent label in 1986 and released to wide acclaim on RCA the following year, remains the finest expression of the band's prescient slowcore country-blues aesthetic, which sat Hank Williams on a barstool next to Lou Reed a couple years before Uncle Tupelo recorded No Depression. But if the Junkies peaked early and The Trinity Session is their definitive statement (an all-star re-recording is due later this year), they've never really made a bad record either.

The closest they've come to a dud was 2005's most covers set Early 21st Century Blues, which tackled global politics. The problem there was subject matter. Vocalist Margo Timmins has an expressive voice that can do wonders with the right song, but she has no feel for venom. A new record with a concept closer to home finds the band back on track. At the End of Paths Taken, written and produced by Margo's brother and bandmate Michael Timmins, is a collection of songs about family. Coming from a group that includes three siblings (Peter Timmins is the bands drummer), it's no surprise that the theme resonates so powerfully.

At the End of Paths Taken is also one of the Junkies' more sonically varied recordings, and extra orchestration helps a number of songs reach their potentials. The lush string section punctuating the choruses behind Margo during opener "Brand New World" drives the increases in tempo and dissonance during the song's final section, reinforcing its expression of parental anxiety, guilt and uncertainty. After compiling a list of maternal pleasures, Margo finishes by singing, "4 am / Dark reality / Brand new world / And my heart is missing."

The chamber orchestra again forms a welcome counterpoint on the ballad "Spiral Down" - which bears a strong melodic resemblance to Sinead O'Connor's "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance" - and on "Follower 2", which moves from a hushed opening to an inventively arranged conclusion redolent of Van Dyke Parks. A less successful change-up is "Cutting Board Blues", which finds the band cranking up the guitars and burying Margo completely in the process. Orchestral builds are one thing, but Cowboy Junkies have never made a convincing Crazy Horse.

Ultimately, even with all these productions touches (more of which are welcome), it always come back to simplicity for this band. Good songs make for good Cowboy Junkies albums, and the ratio here tilts in their favor. The most affecting track, "Someday Soon", does away with adornments completely, getting over with just Margo and Michael singing together over a single acoustic guitar. It scans as the flipside of "Brand New World" - exploring from a kid's perspective how badly children want a parent they can admire - and it's one of Michael's best tunes, right there with "Misguided Angel" and "If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man". I imagine we'll hear a worthy cover or two down the road, "Someday Soon" is just that strong. Which would make cosmic sense; Cowboy Junkies got their start paying tribute to other songwriters, and they're due for some payback.


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