Cowboy Junkies, The Wilderness
The Cowboy Junkies are one of those bands that slide in and out of my consciousness. I’ve gone through periods when I’m very plugged into what they’re doing and periods when I have no idea what they’re up to. That’s not surprising really: I listen to a lot of music and it’s hard to keep up, and the Junkies tend to fly under the radar, having not sold a ton, aside from The Trinity Sessions in 1988. It’s a shame really as when I catch up with them, I’m always impressed.
I suspect most people have a fixed impression of their sound based on their “Sweet Jane” cover (not to mention their name). But the Junkies are a much more flexible and wide-ranging band, as anyone who’s followed their career can attest. Margo Timmins has one of “those” voices: instantly recognizable, expressive and yet without vocal gymnastics. Add her voice to her brother Michael’s emotive and dark songs, and his wide ranging guitar styles, plug in her other brother Peter’s subtle brushwork and Alan Anton’s supple and fluid bass, and you’ve got the unique sound of Cowboy Junkies.
The quieter side of that sound is on full display on The Wilderness, the fourth in the Junkies’ Nomad series, which they started releasing in 2010. Margo’s voice has lost none of its heart or power. If anything, it’s grown even more expressive. And Michael’s songwriting continues to impress, especially his ability as a man to write for a female singer. His lyrics on The Wilderness are filled with imagery of the natural world and spirituality, and, while not exactly upbeat, are not as dark as some of the songs in their canon.
Many of the tunes are quiet acoustic numbers, such as “We Are the Selfish Ones,” “Damaged from the Start” and the pretty “Fairytale” (highlighted by longtime collaborator Jeff Bird’s mandolin notes). “Idle Tales” is a lovely, melancholy ballad sonically highlighted by an echoing piano and low distorted guitar. “Angels in the Wilderness” is similarly sad with searching, pointed lyrics that Margo sings beautifully. I’m also partial to the opening track, “Unanswered Letter (for JB),” the most upbeat on the album.
It’s a strong collection, the only “misstep” being “F***, I Hate the Cold,” which doesn’t fit the overall feel of the album and isn’t that strong a song anyway.
The former member of The Jam and Style Council has produced an uneven effort, which doesn’t surprise me. His work has always frustrated me. He’s capable of producing seminal tunes like “That’s Entertainment” or “Going Underground,” but he’s also produced a lot of filler over the years.
Sonik Kicks is schizophrenic that way. There are some absolutely terrific tunes here. “The Attic” is a 2:15 slice of delicious soul-rock-pop. Just like the Jam at their best, “That Dangerous Age” captures the feel of 1960s rock. And I love the closing song, “Be Happy Children,” a song that’s up there with the best of his work with Style Council.
Then there are tracks like opener “Green,” a mélange of influences that unfortunately doesn’t include melody or coherence. Or “Study in Blue,” a duet to a modified a reggae beat that goes nowhere and seems unfinished. The same could be said of the electronic instrumental “Sleep of the Serene.” He makes attempts at a trance or psychelia on songs like “Dragonfly,” "Drifters" and “Around the Lake,” but he just can’t pull it off: the underlying songs aren’t strong enough and it feels like the sounds are added to try and make something of them.
Do yourself a favor: don’t buy the whole album; just cherrypick the tracks you like.