On Songs of the Recollection, the alt-country greats take on David Bowie, Gram Parsons, the Rolling Stones and more
Watching the long-gone but wonderful TV show Sessions at W. 54th Street one night in the late nineties, I remember David Byrne introducing the band Cowboy Junkies by describing their sound as “sweet but unsettling.”
As usual, Byrne’s musical judgment is apt. The Toronto group has lasted an impressively long time, touring and releasing records for decades.
Their sound creates a bewitching mix of atmospherics, mixing understated acoustics with Margot Timmins’s silken croon. Hushed, intimate, though with a subtle edge, the Cowboy Junkies are the kind of band who would not be out of place playing in an old cathedral, as they did in their lovely breakthrough record The Trinity Sessions.
Artist: The Cowboy Junkies
Album: Songs of the Recollection
Label: Proper Records
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
They also have a knack for cover songs. The noteworthy distinction of earning the praise of legendarily cantankerous Lou Reed, who said their devastatingly understated cover of his “Sweet Jane” was the best. I’ve never forgotten their haunting song “Blue Guitar” which was apparently inspired by the death of troubled country genius Townes Van Zant, incorporating some of his lost lyrics. Along the way, they’ve done versions of songs from Hank Williams to John Lennon to Bob Dylan.
So it makes sense that they would recently release a new all-covers record, entitled Songs of the Recollection. It’s a fairly brief, nine song effort. All the songs are interesting selections, but some fit the Junkies’ stripped-down aesthetic better than others.
Opening with David Bowie’s apocalyptic “Five Years” makes sense. The problem is that the band doesn’t really open up to the operatic extravagance of Bowie’s vocal which is, granted, a tall order. The song needs a big orchestral-type finish after the slow burn of the opening verses and the Junkies bring some distortion but it’s not quite as epic as the original material.
I love that they are paying tribute to the late, great Gram Parsons in “Ooh Las Vegas” and the distorted effect on Timmins’ vocal vividly suggests what it might sound like to fall to pieces in the city of sin. I’m left wondering what it might have sounded like if they’d cut that giddy whirl down to the bone and made it more of a red-eyed, hungover lament in an empty hotel room. Parsons sure knew a little bit about what that felt like.
I’m not terribly familiar with Vic Chestnutt, the Georgia-based singer/songwriter whose brooding “Marathon” shares a similarly desolate vibe. The Junkies are, though, having done a covers record of his material a few years back. Popularizing lesser-known artists is one of the benefits of the cover song, just ask Jeff Buckley and every blues singer ever, and now I want to hear more from Mr. Chestnutt.
The record starts to find its footing with The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” The slide guitar is especially delicious, as it plaintively floats above the lyrics full of the resignation of leaving a place you know you will never return to fits the mood perfectly. Some goes with “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” the first of two covers of their fellow Canadian Neil Young. The distorted guitar is perfectly modulated, ironizing the lyrics’ encouragement not to let disasters dampen your mood with some sonic rumble.
The medium tempo groove of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel” and Young’s “Love in Mind” is where the band really hits their stride. When they ease up a little on Dylan’s extremely recent ballad “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” there’s ukulele and reverent keyboards layered into the mix. The original’s humming backing vocals aren’t included, but somehow it seems like they’re still present in the impeccably layered track.
It’s an example of how Songs of the Recollection casts its most potent spell when the Junkies use the source material on their own terms, conjuring up their own vaporous, languorous atmospherics.
AUDIO: Cowboy Junkies “Five Years”
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