More News on the Cowboy Junkies
The Cowboy Junkies are what would have happened to country music in a world without Ronald Reagan (and Garth Brooks). The new album Black Eyed Man invites you to imagine such a world (call it Canada?) and to "think of all the poetry/ and the pickin' down the line."
The problem the Junkies have always had is their mono-emotional register. Singer Margo Timmins always had the wistful days-of-myths-gone-by attitude down, and guitarist (and songwriter) brother Michael had that understated-but-electric guitar sound to match.
Trouble was, the songs were filled with lyrics that didn't quite jibe with the sound you heard. That makes for a flat, boring listen and quickly disposable albums. (Except for their first release, Trinity Sessions, where the entire album had the twilight of the idols feel, and rightly so.)
On Black Eyed Man, that problem is solved by supplementing the traditional country instrumentation--lap steel guitar, fiddle, accordion, tremolo guitar, tambourine) with more daring sounds--a fat horn section now and then, a mandolin, a cello. Helping out is Margo's willingness to sing something other than lamentations (although "Cowboy Junkies Lament" is as good as they get), and Alan Anton's discovery of the melodic capabilities of the bass.
Until Black Eyed Man, I never would have trusted the Junkies with a song called "Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park." But they pull off the easy forgetfulness and alien feeling of distant violence expertly.
This album also displays their absolute mastery of the 6/8 country ballad ("If you were the woman and I was the man"--a duet with John Prine), the prison song ("Oregon Hill") and the music-industry (or meta-) song ("To Live is to Fly"). Along with these, though, are the kind of sustained big-art-songs, like the title track that I, at least, expect from the Junkies.
Michael's writing, and the group as a whole is never better than on "This Street, that Man, this Life," which begins "This street holds its secrets/ like a cobra holds its kill," and works through the darkness of the scene to "This life has its victories/ but its defeats tear so visciously./ This life holds its secrets/ like the sea." The Junkies have always known some of those secrets, and on Black Eyed Man, they have finally given them a voice.
Black Eyed Man The Cowboy Junkies BMG records