A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
The Cowboy Junkies seemed posed to be another R.E.M. way back in '88. There was a big buzz over The Trinity Session, Sweet Jane received airplay, and the band delivered a solid set on Saturday Night Live. The bands icy coolness and connection to the Velvet Underground also made them the perfect antidote for the latter years of the Reagan Dynasty. All of this, however, was twelve years ago, and there doesn't seem to be any danger of the Cowboy Junkies breaking back into the mainstream. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps their low-key existence has kept them from the occasional excesses and lapses of bands like U2 and R.E.M. They're a rock band aging gracefully. |
There's a rich darkness to Open. The album only slowly comes into focus, gradually revealing its dark underbelly as though the band was afraid of frightening the listener away. The first song passes almost unnoticed, lurid and thick but somehow undefined. The aptly titled Dragging Hooks finds Margo Timmins' vocal strangling beneath atmospheric guitars, breathing darkness. It isn't until the third cut that the band comes clean. The evocative hooks and good old-fashioned rock and roll of Bread and Wine pull the listener deep into a murky landscape of obsession, death, and love gone wrong. As one flows in this shadowy current Open becomes a song cycle seeking to purge the darkness and find spiritual release.
This is rock circa 1974 in the best sense. Many bands attempt playing '70s rock only to give the impression that they have memorized every Rod Stewart-Small Faces-Rolling Stone riff and swagger that one would care to know. It may sound cool, but it's only regurgitation. The Junkies stuff comes ripped out of their guts and never recalls a particular band or song. The riff of I'm So Open or lead guitar on Upon Still Waters perfectly underline each song, creating something distinctive. The piano of Thousand Year Prayer forms a beautiful fragility. In other words, the songs have striking melodies and are memorable.
Michael Timmins' guitar work remains committed to the needs of each song, meaning he never plays a bunch of notes just for the hell of it. And while he may be responsible for the lyrics, sister Margo sings them with conviction. Her vocals, often buried in the mix of bass and guitar, have the same seductive darkness as the words. Bassist Alan Anton and drummer Peter Timmins likewise play as though the songs have touched a personal nerve.
By the end of Open, the band has become quieter, lighter, finding catharsis in the music. The darkness of I Did It All for You echoes in the softer colors of "Small Swift Birds." The empty Dark Hole Again resonates in the gentle Beneath the Gate. Never forget the music. Other bands may be more in the public's sight but that doesn't mean they make better music or will be remembered better in music history. This is the Cowboy Junkies first album on ZoŽ and it's a lovely accomplishment. Some twelve years after their debut the Cowboy Junkies remain a formidable force.