SPACED OUT AND SLOWED DOWN: Cowboy Junkies’ signature sound is still one of the sexiest in alt-country.
Provided you get your music news from newspapers or magazines or Web sites — really, from anywhere but the mouth of someone who lives there — you’d be forgiven for assuming that nothing’s been going on in Canada for the last few years beyond the interconnected shenanigans of that country’s indie-rock elite. Arcade Fire, Feist, the Dears — they’ve all done an excellent job of soaking up whatever attention the rest of the world has deemed appropriate to lavish on the Great White North. But they’re not the end of the story, as witness a handful of new albums by rootsy Canadian artists who — believe it or not — don’t spend their nights and weekends playing in Broken Social Scene.
That said, a couple of moonlighters do show up on Trinity Revisited (Latent/Warner Music Canada), a handsome CD-DVD package from Cowboy Junkies, one of Canada’s longest-running rock acts. The Junkies’ longevity is actually the point of Trinity Revisited: it celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Ontario outfit’s 1988 breakthrough, The Trinity Session, which they recorded around a single microphone inside downtown Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity.
To make Revisited, the Junkies regathered at Holy Trinity along with a film crew and some high-profile friends — Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams, and Vic Chesnutt — and recorded themselves playing the album’s material (this time with more than one microphone). The idea, as they explain in a brief documentary included on the DVD, was to see what’s happened to the music over the past two decades.
The answer? Not a whole heck of a lot. The Junkies rose to alt-rock renown by doing pretty much what their band name implied: slowing down and spacing out country music till it resembled the sound a roadhouse jukebox might emit if it were coming down from a heroin high. (This penchant for straight-shooting descriptions — pardon the pun — caught on among the group’s latter-day successors; see also Codeine and Low.) And though they’ve become more sophisticated songwriters — about half of TheTrinity Session consists of covers, among them Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground — the Junkies haven’t wavered from that mission since the late ’80s.
Which means Revisited is less a revelation of new depths than a confirmation of old values — no big deal, since the Junkies’ signature sound is still one of the sexiest in alt-country. As far as the guests go, Adams makes himself the most comfortable inside the material; it’s a kick watching him negotiate arrangements with Michael Timmins, the band’s guitarist and one of its three Timminses, alongside singer Margo and drummer Peter. Adams isn’t necessarily known for the lusciousness of his records, but under the Junkies’ heavy-lidded sway, he sounds right at home.
k.d. lang, on the other hand, is absolutely known for the lusciousness of her records — she’s Canada’s premier roots-music sensualist, responsible for an expansive body of work that established itself with high-spirited trad country and moved on to encompass jazz, soul, Latin pop, and Tin Pan Alley, all of it swirling like flavors in a sundae. In her 20-year-plus recording career, she’s worked with a bevy of high-profile producers including Owen Bradley, Craig Street, and David Kahne, yet Watershed (Nonesuch) is her first entirely self-produced effort — and it’s no less lovely (or complex) than its predecessors.
Unlike 1997’s Drag or 2000’s Invincible Summer (her most recent collection of original material), Watershed boasts no unifying theme or concept, and that frees up lang to dabble in whatever floats her idiosyncratic boat. Opener “I Dream of Spring” layers twangy dobro and creamy pedal steel over a shuffling drum-machine beat; “Close Your Eyes” has pensive piano plinks and a dark string chart reminiscent of recent Joni Mitchell; “Sunday” rides a muted bossa nova groove that perfectly suits lang’s hankering for a “Sunday afternoon naked in your room.”
Despite the various stylistic allowances, everything on Watershed hangs together thanks to lang’s meticulously calibrated singing, which is like an extrovert’s version of Margo Timmins’s inward murmur. (lang has always claimed another extroverted Canadian as an inspiration, Anne Murray.) Suffice to say she’s one of the few vocalists I can think of capable of making a come-on out of these words that roll out of her mouth in “Coming Home”: “I’m happily indifferent to the ones who have consistently been wrong/And all that once confined us like minutiae at its finest now is gone.”
Ottawa-born Kathleen Edwards is more a member of Adams’s school than lang’s — at least insofar as Adams is a member of the Lucinda Williams and Tom Petty school. At 29, Edwards is just a kid compared with lang and the Junkies, and she wants to make records that reflect that — records that capture what’s fresh and spontaneous about picking up a guitar and bashing out a song rather than what’s hard and complicated about studio work. To help accomplish this on Asking for Flowers (Zoë/Rounder), her third CD, she hired producer Jim Scott, whom she says she’s wanted to work with since discovering that Scott helmed Strangers Almanac by Adams’s old band Whiskeytown.
The result isn’t profound, as plain-talking song titles like “Sure As Shit” and “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” suggest. (“Choosing my words carefully has never been my strength,” Edwards admits in the former — “I’ve been known to be vague and often pointless.”) But with its catchy melodies, appealingly casual-sounding arrangements, and Edwards’s wide-open vocals, Asking for Flowers exudes an off-the-cuff charm that’s almost impossible to fake. The next time you’re programming a roadhouse jukebox — one not on a heroin nod — you could do a lot worse than giving it pride of place.