Cowboy Junkies have been ploughing a lonely musical furrow since the late 1980’s. Their sound hasn’t changed on Early 21st Century Blues . The band’s spectral country roots, their sense of haunted 3am shivers still pervades. It’s Gram Parson‘s cosmic American music stripped of thrills. Its pure musical essence, pain, regret, hope. Melancholy and resignation. The world is alive in Margo Timmins luminous vocals. The music, pure, brooding, transcendent. Country music directed by Wim Wenders.
21st Century Blues is made up of eight cover versions and two original songs with loosely based themes of war, hatred and greed. The material was recorded in a five-day stint in the bands own Canadian studio. We get cover versions of Bob Dylan, Springsteen, George Harrison, John Lennon and U2.
The collection starts with the sound of laughter before Michael Timmins’ trademark guitar sound echoes out of the speakers. It’s a cover of Dylan’s License To Kill, culled from his Infidels LP. The lyrics set the tone for the collection: “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please, and if things don’t change soon, he will, oh, man has invented his doom..”. I’m no Dylan fan, I can never get beyond that voice. I confess to never having heard his version, but this reinterpretation is full of the slow ache that makes Cowboy Junkies such a dolorous thrill.
December Skies, the first of the two Micheal Timmins songs on the collection, confronts the slow march to war since 9/11. A backward guitar slowly unwinds, a nagging cello splashes mournful cascades of notes across the backing of slide bass and high hat crashes. The vocals are suitably loaded with portent. The chorus “Let’s all kill our children and sing about it,” is a clever double edged line. Are they mocking the prayers that are sung in support of war? Is it an admittance of the impotence of music in the harsh realties of the early 21st Century?
The Springsteen covers work well. Brothers Under The Bridge is fleshed out from the original demo recording on Tracks. A gentle banjo is plucked and a pedal steel push along below Margo Timmins’ beautifully weary vocals. You’re Missing is the negative of this. The layers of bombast added by the E-Street band are stripped away like gaudy paint from a pine door. What remains is the core of the song. Its centre of pain, its longing and its attempt to find hope in the despair of death.
A cover of Riche Haven‘s Handouts In The Rain is the centre piece of the LP. It’s a heartfelt plea for greater understanding and tolerance. The folk jazz style of the song is remodelled into a Velvet Underground country shuffle. The vocal’s a Canadian Nico – cut glass drama and weary nicotine stained anguish. The guitars sway, the drums sound as hollow as a politicians promises. A lamentation for a world gone wild.
Things get mildly funky and slightly embarrassing on I Don’t Want To Be A Solider. Lennon’s song molested by an awful coffee shop funk-lite backing. The bass thumps, the drums lock it and then when you think its reached its nadir a misplaced and clumsy rap fires blanks across the backing track. Think REM‘s Radio Song played by uptight librarians.
A hymnal version of U2’s One closes the proceedings. It lacks the warmth and emotional weight of the original and the dark heart of Johnny Cash‘s brittle reading. The vocals are too pure to deliver the desperation that lies at the centre of the song. Margo sounds like a choirgirl when she needs to sound vanquished and broken.
When the music peaks this is an enchanting listen, but it’s unlikely to win the band any new converts. It’s the sound of transition, the band searching for ways to move forward into a new chapter.