Cowboy Junkies: Early 21st Century Blues

The Cowboy Junkies started their career with an album of covers and haven’t done another such compilation since. Until now: their Early 21st Century Blues, originally available only from their website but being released by Rounder next month, features covers of anti-war songs in the Junkies’s trademark laconic style. If you’re like most listeners, this description will have you running in one of two directions: madly toward the disc or as far away from it as possible. Frustratingly, the disc contains plenty of material to support both those positions.

With an album of covers (even one, like this, that includes a few original tunes), the reviewer’s focus has to be the selection of material and whether the arrangements and performances bring anything new to the songs. On the first note, this compilation does well. The track list comes together in pairs, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Brothers Under the Bridge” and “You’re Missing,” the aforementioned brace of originals by Michael Timmins (“December Skies” and “This World Dreams Of”), a pair of tunes by ex-Beatles (George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” and John Lennon’s acerbic “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier”), and a few associated with Bob Dylan (the traditional “Two Soldiers” and Dylan’s own “License to Kill”); the traditional “No More,” Richie Havens’ “Handouts in the Rain,” and U2’s “One” round out the set. High points for material, then.

Performances and arrangements? Well, each of the numbers, with one exception, sound like a Cowboy Junkies song. That’s not necessarily a knock, just a note that most of the album is firmly in familiar territory with the familiar vocals of Margo Timmins anchoring the usual multi-instrumental crew in the background. This doesn’t always make for arrangements that bring new things to songs. Case in point: “Two Soldiers,” which despite a full band and a narrative gender switch brings nothing to the song that Dylan didn’t bring out in his version on 1993’s superlative World Gone Wrong.

Then there’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier.” The band’s website notes, “We set up a drum loop and jammed away. After it was all over we realized that there was a definite hip-hop motion to the loop so we invited a friend of ours, Kevin Bond (aka Rebel) to write and record a rap, based on the themes that were driving the songs on the album. We then dumped the whole mess in Jeff Wolpert’s lap and asked him to make sense of it.” Oddly, the experiment mostly works. The interaction of drums and bass in the loop is a little too reminiscent of O.P.P., and the rap is a little shocking when it starts, like walking through an Appalachian forest and coming across a tricked out Escalade. But Michael’s distorted guitars, Rebel’s rap, and Margo’s vocals play off each other building to a hypnotic climax. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Other highlights on the disc include “Handouts in the Rain,” a fine take on a beautiful song, and “Isn’t It a Pity,” which must be Harrison’s most covered song. In this recording, it’s apparent why, as the soaring final choruses finally succeed in bringing Margo’s voice out of the comforting blanket of the low alto range and bring some real passion from the band.

So: the album is uneven, yes, and flirts dangerously close to Starbucks territory in some of the less inspired moments. But for “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier” and “Isn’t It a Pity,” it’s definitely worth checking out.

One last note: the timing of an anti-war album in 2005 would seem to be too little, too late. But part of the favor done by this album is to remind us that war is both human and all too omnipresent. What might have seemed trite, if timely, in 2003 feels a bit more universal in 2005. And sadly the album’s message is even more relevant two years later.

You can read more about the album, listen to the tracks, and buy it from the Junkies’ site. Also see the Blogcritics interview about the album with Michael Timmins by the fine folks at Earvolution.

(Also posted at Blogcritics.)