"There's a dual sense to Open, as well. I mean, the initial idea is something that is open, or somebody that is open is a very positive thing. But then when you are open, you're also very vulnerable to things that come in through, whatever, the door. So there's also a menacing side to is as well."—Michael Timmins
Can anybody figure out what the heck Michael Timmins is talking about up there? Anyway, this is music that makes you want to light some candles and incense, and chill.
Facts of the Case
While the core of Cowboy Junkies is siblings Michael (guitar), Peter (drums), and Margo Timmins (vocals), along with long-time family friend Alan Anton on bass, the Canadian version of the Partridge Family they ain't. The band released their first record Whites Off Earth Now in 1986, then made mainstream ripples in 1988 with their mellow cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane"—which anchored their second record, Trinity Session, and later appeared on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers—and have been plugging away steadily ever since, content to make the music they want without the major concessions necessary for massive mainstream popularity.
In May of 2001, the band released their 11th record, Open, and toured to support it with a beefed up line-up that included Jeff Bird on harmonica, acoustic and electric mandolin, 8 string bass, and percussion; Simon Kendal, Vince Jones, and Lindford Detweiler on keyboards and accordian during various legs of the North American and European tours; and Karin Bergquist on backing vocals and acoustic guitar in Europe. Open Road is a collection of live performances for television broadcast, charity, and radio captured during the tour.
Comparisons to the organic musings of folk, instrumental textures of country, the noodlings of the Grateful Dead, or Neil Young's quiet intensity may abound in rock music journals' analysis of the band, but direct examination reveals the Cowboy Junkies as purveyors of well-crafted and melodic pop. They are a pop band, however, with an ear for musical nuance, an appreciation for the rich possibilities of timbre, and an awareness that the central challenge set before every musician is finding a way to express his own humanity in his playing. That sensibility separates them from the field of pop musicians who churn out generic tunes so filtered through modern-day electronic wizardry that all soul is lost despite the catchy hooks.
So, what does Cowboy Junkies' music sound like? It sounds like Cowboy Junkies' music. All right, I'm being cheeky, but I hate rock journalism that describes a band or record in terms of its similarity to other bands or records (I recently read a Rolling Stone review of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' new record By the Way which described it as Californication—their previous record—with a little Sgt. Peppers and Pet Sounds thrown in to produce a richer sound—that's woefully inadequate and is essentially an admission that the reviewer's only language for describing vocal harmonies is to invoke the Beatles or Beach Boys). In any event, while I refuse to go down that road, I will say this about Cowboy Junkies: they have the sort of sound that can only come from a group of musicians who listen to and absorb all manner of music, particularly those forms which have recently been dubbed American root music: blues, gospel, bluegrass, folk, country. Cowboy Junkies' music falls into none of those genres, but the influence of each weaves its way into the mix. If you like other artists influenced by American root music—Bob Dylan, The Band, Neil Young, Emmy Lou Harris—you'll probably like Cowboy Junkies, although I can't say they sound directly influenced by any of the above. They are their own beast…but that should be the goal of every band.
Open is a tiny bit of a departure for the band, or perhaps a return to their roots. It adds to their low-key, melodic sound guitar-fuzz reminiscent of British psychedelia of the 1960s, along with the meandering jams that characterize their live performances but are frequently abridged in studio efforts. Some fans have complained but, while I'll grant I'm no Junkies expert, I like the added flavors. The band's major weaknesses are that Michael Timmins writes nearly all of its tunes, and the members appear overly comfy-cozy with one another. Timmins is an excellent songwriter (if you doubt me, just check out the lush beauty and subtle humor of "Thousand Year Prayer") but even if he were as good as John Lennon, the band has no Paul McCartney. Rock bands forced to wrestle with creative conflict and tension tend to be more musically dynamic. If that weren't the case, there'd be no VH1 Behind the Music. It's a fact of rock 'n' roll human nature: when two or more talented songwriters are forced to compete with one another for song space on a record, they're bound to push hard at their own limitations, resulting in better, more varied music. Cowboy Junkies' music can have a narcotizing effect because of how even-keeled it is. There isn't a dramatic difference in feel between up-tempo tunes and wistful ballads. The distorted guitar at least adds a needed edge, a fresh dynamic.
To call Open Road a concert video is inaccurate since it is made up of four separate programs culled from live material filmed and recorded during the tour. The programs are fairly balanced in terms of length and impact, so it's not as though there is a main program and a series of extras; in a sense, everything is the main program, and everything is an extra.
A Documentary in Music, Ones, and Zeroes is the highlight of the disc, a 55-minute montage of video clips and still photos from the North American and European legs of the tour. The beauty of the program is that the images focus not on stage performance but on the miscellanea of touring: the motels, bars, churches, laundry-mats, mom 'n' pop shops that provide local color—exactly the sorts of things one would be interested in if whisking for months across the countryside, staying only a day or two in any given city. And everything we see is set to music; this is not a talking-head documentary. The program is broken into eight chapters that can be played in sequence or selected individually from a menu, and each chapter is set to its own tune, recorded live during the tour. It plays out both as a very raw and moody music video, and a live concert set to rustic, gritty, naturalistic images. The songs that appear in this segment are:
• Highway Kind (recorded in Paris, November 17, 2001)
Video is full screen and varies in quality based on the source material. Much of it has an amateur, hand-held video camera feel to it, but that rawness is consistent with the tone and intent of the program. Still photos are nicely rendered. Even the roughest of source material plays well here because it's all pulled together with cuts and dissolves that create the effect of the images floating over the music. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and is cleanly recorded but, again, raw. It certainly doesn't sound like a studio recording with some audience noise slapped into the mix, but I'm not a fan of that sort of slick production for live recordings anyway—the effect is too sterile. The sound production is essentially invisible, allowing the performance of a solid live band to take center stage, and that's the way it should be.
Cowboy Junkies Live from Quebec City is a more traditional concert video. Shot on video for television broadcast, the 47-minute program captures Cowboy Junkies' set at the Quebec City Summer Festival. It adheres to standard concert-video aesthetics with plenty of crane shots, camera movement, and tight closeups of soulful playing and singing. Title banners at the bottom of the screen and fades-to-black between some songs (presumably for commercial breaks) betray the program's TV origins. The setlist for the program is as follows:
• Lay It Down
The program is indexed in eight parts (each song in the "River Song Trilogy" is separately indexed) that are menu-accessible. From both a video and audio standpoint, this is the least impressive of the four programs. Problems appear rooted in the source material and not the transfer itself. Colors in the full screen transfer are bright and fairly natural, but the overall image is soft and video artifacts are present throughout. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and has the same raw quality as the previous program but is slightly flatter and less dynamic. It's not so bad it's distracting, but the difference is noticeable when the programs are viewed in sequence.
Margo and Michael Timmins Live from the Temple is a 30-minute performance, taped for a TV special to benefit the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children. It's as slickly produced as the Quebec City concert, but with more intimate staging and superior video and sound quality. It's something akin in both quality and vibe to MTV's Unplugged. While the source material is still video it has all the bright and natural color without the soft image and video artifacts. Sound, again, is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The program consists of the following songs performed by Michael on acoustic guitar and Margo singing:
• Anniversary Song
An Open Conversation with Margo and Michael Timmins is a 35-minute radio interview conducted at Umbrella Studios in Toronto by Jody Denberg and it plays like just about any long-format radio interview you've ever heard—except you can see this one. The camera remains trained on Michael and Margo (although there is a camera operator, so it's not completely stationary, moving back and forth between the two and pulling in and out with enough subtlety that it doesn't feel like a complete amateur job). It's a loose conversation about the writing, recording, and performance of Open, with Denberg steering things off-screen. The Timmons siblings perform "I'm So Open," "Thousand Year Prayer," and "Small Swift Birds" in the studio. Video and audio is consistent with the rest of the content on the DVD.
The extra in this package is a second disc, an Open Road CD of performances gathered from various stops on the tour. With a one-hour running time it's no toss-away extra but a solid live album, offering up a larger collection of tunes than any single program on the DVD. The setlist on the CD is:
• Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park
Its mish-mash structure and the repetition of some of the tunes from program to program probably make this DVD most attractive to Cowboy Junkies' hard-core fans and completists. Still, the package offers a wealth of material broken up in a way that enables you to choose what you want to watch or listen to based on your mood. Considering it retails for somewhere in the $20 range, it's not a bad investment even for the casual listener.
Cowboy Junkies are found not guilty, as is the Open Road DVD. Court is adjourned.
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