Despite its title, the new Cowboy Junkies
album, At the End of Paths Taken,
is as much about new beginnings as it is about endings. It is also about human connections, the struggle to sustain those connections over time, and the complexities that can arise even when those connections are maintained. It is, in other words, a classic Cowboy Junkies album a suite of smart, richly textured songs that value subtlety over broad, generic strokes, songs that prize insight and casual revelations over easily
Family lies at the heart of the album's eleven songs, and, of course, that is appropriate, too. Three of the band's members singer Margo Timmins; songwriter, producer and guitarist Michael Timmins; and drummer Peter Timmins are siblings, and bassist Alan Anton has been a member since the group formed in Toronto in 1985. Few bands have lasted nearly as long with their original line-up intact, and fewer still have created as consistently satisfying a body of work. Albums like The Trinity Session (1988), Black Eyed Man (1992), Miles From Our Home (1988) and Early 21st Century Blues (2005), to isolate just a few high points, chronicle a creative journey that is impervious to trends. Each of those albums sounds as fresh and current today as when it was made. You don't stay together and produce work of that quality and depth without learning something about family and permanence what lasts, what doesn't, perhaps even what shouldn't.
But if their history is an important part of what led the band to At the End of Paths Taken, other factors entered in as well. "My idea was to write an album about families, about how generations affect generations, how there's a continuum," Michael says. "I'm the father of three young kids, and I've got aging parents, so that's obviously a big part of my life. But I found that what was going on in the outside world was affecting my writing. These times are extremely trying. What sort of world is being set up for my kids? All of that began
to brew together."
The result is an album that takes family as a starting point, but goes on to look at the vast range of people's responsibilities to and for each other. "Songs like 'Still Lost' and 'Blue Eyed Saviour' are ultimately about any parent and their kids, about sending them out into the world and having no clue where that journey will take them," Michael says. On "Mountain," Margo's vocal interweaves with a recording of their father, a successful aviation salesman, reading a passage about their family from a book he recently completed about his life.
"I heard a voice in the back of my head, and I told Mike that I wanted to try something," Margo recalls. "I wanted to just talk the song, to speak it. Then Mike suggested, 'What about dad reading his book?' It was perfect. Because it's me and my father, our voices blend really well."
"It fit so much into the concept of the album, it was freaky," Michael adds.
Evocative string arrangements by the Canadian composer Henry Kucharzyk lend songs like "Brand New World" and "Spiral Down" both a sense of beauty and an unsettling feeling of apprehension. The album's closing track, "My Only Guarantee," nods to Philip Larkin's famous poem about family, "This Be the Verse," which opens with the lines, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do." Like the poem, the song takes a sardonic and, finally, somehow accepting view of the damage that parents inevitably inflict on their children. "My only guarantee," the song concludes, "I will f--- you up."
In a departure from the way they typically work, Michael gave Margot sets of lyrics with no melodies when they began working on At the End of Paths Taken. "It was like a book of poems no music," she says. "Every night I would read them, and I got really familiar with them. So when the music was given to me, I had my own interpretation. I do my best singing when, as I like to say, 'I can sing with my eyes closed' when the song is inside of me. I had wrestled with these so much, they were already my songs."
In part, that's because At the End of Paths Taken tells the story of the band. "To me, this album is looking at who we are right at this second, right now," Margo says. "At our ages, with our work, as parents of young children. It's all the paths I've taken to this point --
to who I am."
One milestone on the Cowboy Junkies' trip, of course, is The Trinity Session, the album, recorded in one memorable day, which first brought the band international recognition. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of that day in the studio, and to commemorate it, the band returned to the Toronto church where the album was recorded and performed new versions of its songs with the help of Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt.
"We all got together the night before, and the next day we just played and filmed," Michael says. "Ryan, Natalie and Vic told us about how the album had affected them, and they were really into it. It turned out to be exactly what we wanted. We sat in a circle and forgot the cameras were there. It was like the day we originally recorded it a really intense
Both the Trinity Session and At the End of Paths Taken and, really, all the music the band has made over the years -- reflect the independent road that the Cowboy Junkies have always elected to travel. "To express what we want to express that's why we do it," Michael says, while pointing out that the band's sense of conviction is as strong as ever. "It's a bigger commitment now. It's got
to be important."
Margo agrees. "One of the things we've done that has never changed," she says, "is we've always made music the way it felt good to us. We never wondered, 'How will this be received?' or 'Is this what's happening?' We've changed as musicians, but we never changed our attitude and approach. The music has continued to satisfy all of us. That's why
we're still together."
Although it didn't originally have anything to do with their sound, the Cowboy Junkies' name wound up seeming pretty accurate: their music was grounded in traditional country, blues, and folk, yet drifted along in a sleepy, narcotic haze that clearly bore the stamp of the Velvet Underground. The vast majority of their songs were spare and quiet, taken at lethargic tempos and filled with languid guitars and detached, ethereal vocals courtesy of Margo Timmins. Over the late '80s and '90s, the group recorded a succession of critically acclaimed albums that found favor in the alternative rock community.
The Cowboy Junkies were founded by guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins and bassist Alan Anton (born Alan Alizojvodic), who first played together in a Toronto-based band called the Hunger Project in 1979. They later moved to the U.K. and played with an avant-garde instrumental outfit called Germinal, but eventually grew weary of the group's style and returned to Toronto in 1984. They started jamming with Timmins' brother Peter on drums, and in 1985 they recruited a vocalist in sister Margo, at the time a social worker who'd never sung publicly before. Dubbing themselves the Cowboy Junkies simply because the name had a ring to it, they formed their own independent label, Lament, and released their debut album, Whites Off Earth Now!!, in 1986. Featuring only one original song, the album was recorded using only one microphone, and although it was initially available only in Canada, it helped them land a major-label deal with RCA. Their first widespread release was 1988's The Trinity Session, which was recorded inside Toronto's Holy Trinity church in the span of one night -- again using only one microphone. The Trinity Session became a cult hit, earning rave reviews from critics and substantial college radio airplay for tracks like "Misguided Angel" and their cover of "Sweet Jane."
Now an underground sensation, the Cowboy Junkies decided to concentrate more on Michael Timmins' original material for the bigger-budget follow-up, 1989's The Caution Horses. The album didn't cause quite as much of a stir, although it helped maintain their cult fan base. 1992's even more countrified Black Eyed Man found Timmins settling more comfortably into his songwriting voice, which set the stage for 1993's Pale Sun, Crescent Moon. Hailed as their finest effort since The Trinity Session, the record bore more influence from rock and blues, and returned the Junkies to critics' darling status. However, it also proved to be their final album of new material for RCA. As the band left for Geffen, RCA issued the two-disc live compilation 200 More Miles and the best-of Studio. Meanwhile, the Junkies debuted for Geffen in 1996 with Lay It Down, a relatively high-volume effort compared to their shimmering early work.
Following 1998's Miles from Our Home, the group parted ways with Geffen and revived their own Latent label. Their first release was the 2000 live album Waltz Across America, which was initially available only through the band's website. They followed it a year later with an album of all-new material, Open. One Soul Now followed in 2004. In 2005, the group released Early 21st Century Blues, a collection of covers -- and two originals -- that dealt with "war, violence, fear, greed, ignorance and loss." Recorded in just five days, it harkened back to The Trinity Session. Later that year, the band was featured on the Beatles tribute album This Bird Has Flown, which was produced by Jim Sampas and featured various artists including the Donnas and Dar Williams. Meanwhile, the band was busy collaborating with visual artist Enrique Martinez Celaya on a commemorative art book. Released in 2006, -Cowboy Junkies XX was a retrospective piece intended to celebrate the band's 20th anniversary. It featured original watercolors by Celaya, handwritten song lyrics, and photographs gathered from the bandmembers' personal collections. Steve Huey.
Cowboy Junkies: At the End of Paths Taken, is as much about new beginnings as it is about endings. It's about human connections, and the complexities to sustain and maintain them over time. In other words, this is a classic Cowboy Junkies album a suite of smart, richly textured songs that prize insight and casual revelations over easily digestible cliches.
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