Time Magazine
December 5, 1988
By Jay Cocks, photo by David Gahr

Rattling the Neighborhood

The Cowboy Junkies cook up some fresh country blues

That's it: mystery. That's what's been missing, and that is precisely what the Cowboy Junkies offer. This Canadian-based band takes hold of some old blues or some vintage country that is threatening to lose its edge and turn into something cushy and classic. They spin it out, rework it, rediscover it, find the secret pulse under the familiarity. Suddenly a song that's been on tape delay somewhere in the back of the memory bank comes into the consciousness at full volume. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry hasn't sounded so desolate since Hank Williams. The Cowboy Junkies work their wiles on it, and the song is reborn.

There is enough new country music around just now to make it seem like a 365-day spring down in Nashville. There is music of anger (Steve Earle) and oddness (Lyle Lovett), music full of craft and winning ways like the tunes on a Randy Travis album. But, with the exception of the wonderful O'Kanes, the sounds in the country air do not abound with enigma. Country has traditionally run to chill depths, though. When Patsy Cline sang Walking After Midnight, she found a lonesomeness whose locus was closer to the soul than the heart. When the Cowboy Junkies cover Cline's tune on their just released RCA album, The Trinity Session, they bring something extra of their own to it, something haunted. In the false lull of Margo Timmins' lovely voice and measured phrasing there is the suggestion that whoever's up after midnight may not only be walking, but also stalking.

"Our music's very drifting, very ethereal," says Margo's brother, Michael, 29, who is the driving force (as well as tour van driver) behind the Junkies. "We lay down certain rhythms and grooves, establish them, then Margo and I color them. Not paint. Color. We're not concerned with reproducing Hank Williams as he was. We want his intent, his feel, as we hear it." The band, which has recently grown to seven members, also has a maverick edge that harks back to the best rowdy traditions of country. The Trinity Session contains a startling version of Lou Reed's acrid Velvet Underground tune Sweet Jane. The Velvets were a formative influence on the Cowboy Junkies, one that is still discernable in the unpolished precision of their playing, all those drifting Svengali chords that put on the whammy and make every tune into a three-minute trance state.
"It's the perfect 3 a.m. listening music," Michael observes, and he is right, if what's wanted is a night of unsettled dreams. The sound of the Junkies is a direct and salubrious reaction to the mainstream softening of country music. "What you hear on the radio is pretty sappy," he says. "It's pop with a Southern accent." Margo Timmins, 27, sings slow and deliberate. The other Cowboy Junkies play the same way. After a while, they can sound as if they're working a gig at the funeral for the sweetheart of the rodeo. This is a band grounded in silence ("The lack of sound is as compelling as sound"), in suggestion and indirection. Such stylistic focus - or, occasionally, obstinacy- seems as if it might be limiting a record or two from now, but the band remains untroubled. "The sounds coming at you today are so blatant, so up front about everything, that they force an emotion on you," Michael says. "We want our music to be evocative, to pull at emotions." Anyway, Timmins and bass player Alan Anton, 29, put in a lot of time with the musical pummeling. They are entitled to take a different road.

Friends since kindergarten, Michael and Alan shared records and formed a band in high school. At "about 18 or 19" they went semipro, putting together an outfit called Hunger Project, which moved from Toronto to New York City in 1980. They tried - mostly unsuccessfully - to make a living playing adaptations of the kind of fierce rock that was then coming out of England. "The kids in England had a lot to growl about," Michael recalls. "We didn't. We were middle class. We didn't really hook into the philosophy of the music so much as the expression." Finally landing in England in 1981, Anton and Timmins found the rock scene there "pretentious and unreceptive to any outsiders. Innovation was the squeal of a car brake." They boys lasted four years. They had a band called Germinal, in which guitar, bass, drum and sax "all did whatever, all at the same time. IT was the ultimate release for us. But for the audience, it was quite a chore."

Besides taxing the audience, Germinal helped Anton and Timmins blow their own circuitry so that it was ready for a more delicate rewiring. "We'd gotten the aggressiveness out of our system," Michael says. "Now we could think about our music - and leave some spaces in it." Back in Toronto again, working out of a rehearsal space inside his brother Pete's garage, Michael started to work up the meditative, mood-ridden sound of the Cowboy Junkies. Pete was recruited to play drums. Margo, whose previous vocal experience was confined to school pageants, was coaxed into singing. The garage walls were covered with carpeting so the neighbors wouldn't complain. "That's where a lot of the quietness of the Cowboy Junkies comes from," says Michael, almost with a straight face. "It's from not wanting to disturb the neighbors."

Their first album, released in 1986, got a modest cult going for the band, but The Trinity Session landed them a big time deal with RCA. They are planning a new album, with a more folkish influence, to be recorded early next year, and will be making occasional touring forays into the States before they return to the studio. Don't expect to tune in immediately, though. "We don't show everything," Michael Timmins says, "We keep a little bit hidden." That's the solution to the mystery of the Cowboy Junkies, then: they may not show what's hidden, but they surely can play.

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