Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cowboy Junkies – Demons: The Nomad Series Volume 2


Cowboy Junkies – Demons: The Nomad Series Volume 2
2011, Razor & Tie/Latent Recordings

Cowboy Junkies was formed back in 1985 by siblings Margo Timmons (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar, songwriting) and Peter Timmins (drums) along with bassist Alan Anton.  Twenty-six years on and the original foursome are still together, with occasional help from friends.  Cowboy Junkies broke into international prominence with their second album, The Trinity Sessions back in 1987, led by their smash hit cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”.    While the Cowboy Junkies haven’t seen a lot of chart action outside of their native Canada since that time, they have developed an almost rabid following on three continents.  In 1998 the band went back to their Indie roots, releasing fourteen albums since that time on their own imprint, Latent Recordings.  Cowboy Junkies’ latest effort, Demons: The Nomad Series Volume 2 is a collection of the music of Vic Chestnutt.  Chestnutt had played with Cowboy Junkies over the years, and the album seems a sort of memoriam to him from the band.  Demons hits shelves virtual and real on February 15, 2011.

Demons opens with "Wrong Piano", a pretty and ethereal interpretation that finds Margo Timmins shedding the perfect blend of dark and light in her vocals.  The roiling arrangement is at one peaceful and disturbing, with the lead guitar setting out an arrhythmic musical heartbeat driven by sadness.  "Flirted With You All My Life" is a love song to death.  Chestnutt's songwriting is dark and compelling, casting his courtship with the afterlife as a romance.  "See You Around" is perhaps one of Chestnutt's most brilliant songwriting moments.  The melancholy melody drips with an insolent brilliance, and Margo Timmins takes the song as her own.  The gorgeous arrangement is crowned with synth as a haunting counter voice to Timmons.  This is a wow moment.

"Betty Lonely" is articulate but drawn out to interminable lengths.  The performance is solid and the vocals are entrancing, but the song itself is just too deep in pathos for all but the most sunless souls.  "Square Room" is a pretty, pragmatic folk tune with many layers.  Written from the depths of alcoholism and loneliness, Timmons explores Chestnutt's delineation of dreams that might have been.  "Supernatural" has a gorgeous melody buried deep in a sorrowful arrangement that will surprise you.  The Cowboy Junkies manage to bring out the tragic beauty in this tune more clearly than Chestnutt's recording, but lose none of his muted sense of awe.  "West Of Rome" is dark, mournful and moribund, but beautiful in its deficit of light.  This one moves slowly and may wear on some listeners, but the song has an esoteric beauty that's strongly enhanced by the string arrangement.  Demons closes with a trio of songs, "Strange Language", "We Hovered With Short Wings" and "When The Bottom Fell Out" that fail to live up to what's come before.  The performances are all solid, but you'll get the sense that these were chosen more to fill out the album than for any sense of inspiration.

Cowboy Junkies have never been known for taking things lightly.  Their musical history is one of minimalism and beauty.  Playing on the instrumental/writing genius of Michael Timmons and the soul-melting alto of Margo Timmons, Cowboy Junkies have inspired an entire generation of down-tempo and mellow artists to reach for new heights.  All of those qualities are present on Demons, blended with the disturbed and occasionally brilliant songwriting of Vic Chestnutt.  Sometimes this mix is pure genius, and sometimes it just doesn't work so well.  Even in the moments that don't quite mesh, Cowboy Junkies manage to bring out the best in the songs presented here, but folks who are diehard fans of either Chestnutt or Cowboy Junkies might get a little lost along the way.  In its best moments, Demons is haunting.

Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)

Learn more about Cowboy Junkies at www.cowboyjunkies.com,  www.latentrecordings.com/cowboyjunkies or www.myspace.com/cowboyjunkies.  Demons drops on February 15, 2011.  You can pre-order the album on CD, on Vinyl or as a Download from Amazon.com.Check out Cowboy Junkies tonight (February 9th) on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.