Cowboy Junkies

Ah, Cooking Vinyl, home of randomly unsettling weirdoes like Pere Ubu, neglected and underrated maestros like Jackie Leven or, say, Killing Joke, legends like Billy Bragg and The Minus Five, folky strangeness and a few worthy also-rans. And, label staples since they took control of their own distribution, Cowboy Junkies, ever-reliable purveyors of trailer park glam-eyed sadness.

Cowboy Junkies are an institution – a look through my record collection turns up a dozen albums and there may be a few more scattered around or under the sofa. They’re also a family affair – three siblings and a guest or two, though the enviably strange Jeff Bird, surely counts as a relative by now. Margo Timmins fronts up the vocals and her voice is the kind where you can hear the contours of the throat and mouth and tongue it pours over. Peter Timmins plays the drums and Michael Timmins provides rough-edged guitar and all the songs. Alan Antom adds a fundamental rolling bass and Jeff Bird, the mandolin, fiddle, whatever is lying around.

The album opens with Margo telling us “there are mouths to feed and shoes to buy, rent to pay and tears to dry”. It’s a resonant, close sound-space, a tightly-bowed viola stands the hairs up on my neck. “Here we stand, at the end of paths taken”, begins Still Lost. There’s a sense of resignation to the ways families tie us. Not a happy set of songs, following on from the hard to get a grip on Early 21st Century Blues – itself an exploration of nearly all the seven deadly sins. This is back to the ordinary misery of the CJ’s, itself an uplifting cathartic journey into the blue heart of downbeat country. The Cowboy Junkies favour the slow and sad and the country waltz but don’t equate that with quiet. They can kick off squally showers of distorted electric guitar as well as Neil Young on a windy day, as evidenced on Cutting Board Blues. Spiral Down, a song about, er, spiralling down, features a lovely fiddle figure, as sad as the cellos and a counterpoint to Margo’s sonorous and sexy voice. Bass lines roll across the sound like breakers heading for shore. “Can someone tell me how this mountain got so high?” sings Margo. A childrens’ choir provides a wordless chorus to the piano ballad offering the promise: “My only guarantee: I will f*ck you up”.

In the tradition of sad-eyed, doomed (but terminally pissed-up) Texan troubadour, Townes Van Zandt, The Cowboy Junkies offer more of the same in each instalment and I’ll keep wanting more of this dream-like vision of Appalachian melancholy, always the same and always different; miles away from the debut (Whites Off Earth Now), yet a sister piece cut from the same slab. Not cowboys, not junkies, let’s hear it for the Cowboy Junkies.

Ross McGibbon