Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies consists of three siblings — Margo, Michael and Peter Timmins — and a friend, Alan Anton, attracted to rural blues and honkytonk. They began by blending a rudimentary production aesthetic, gauzy vocals, exquisite taste in covers and subtle group dynamics into a soft-focus sound that, depending on one’s viewpoint, is either catatonic or mesmerizing. But before slumber or charges of gimmickry set in, the low-key quartet discovered how to make equally affecting music at higher volume.
Whites off Earth Now!! is steeped in bluesy introspection, with covers of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker classics. It also evokes Bruce Springsteen’s stark Nebraska, from which it draws “State Trooper.” While veering dangerously close to elevator music, the disc has an intriguing subtext: in a lullaby voice, Margo Timmins pulls a gender reversal on the harsher blues vignettes, vowing on the Johnson tune (“Me and the Devil”), “I’m gonna beat my man / Until I get satisfied.”
Covers, including Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight,” also dominate The Trinity Session, on which the Junkies take the tentative, stripped-down sound of the debut to its glorious extreme. Setting up in a church with a single microphone, the group circled ’round Timmins and created a masterpiece of noir atmosphere, a shimmering triumph with the impact of a deep, haunting dream. Anchored by dirge-like versions of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” the core group embellishes its country/blues hybrid with fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel and harmonica players.
The deceptively tough female persona that glimmered on Whites off Earth Now!! emerges more forcefully on The Caution Horses, as Margo interprets the songs of her brother Michael, the band’s guitarist and primary writer. In general, the material and performances are more strident, with mixed results. “Your body for my soul…fair swap,” she sings with chilling finality on “‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel,” while “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” is a bitter declaration of independence. But a tepid version of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” breaks the band’s string of dazzling covers.
Black Eyed Man shakes off the last vestiges of drowsiness, with punchier arrangements and singing. Bassist Anton’s rubbery grooves are reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh; like the Dead in American Beauty mode, the Junkies veer toward rustic rock. Michael Timmins indulges his literary pretensions with songs that read more like exercises in southern gothic imagery, but he’s outdone by Townes Van Zandt, who contributes “Cowboy Junkies Lament” and “To Live Is to Fly.” Even with Van Zandt’s help, the disc feels mannered and distant.
On Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, the Junkies drop most of the string-band sidemen to incorporate, of all things, guitar feedback. With the songs once again more personal in tone — this time focusing on domestic scenes of redemption and violence — the band sounds newly energized. A cover of Dinosaur Jr’s “The Post,” while hardly definitive, is a gateway to the new sound, with Michael’s guitar twisting around his sister’s ardent yet nuanced delivery on the glowing “Anniversary Song” and the terror-stricken “Hunted.”
The next stop for this deceptively reserved bunch was a grand live retrospective, a bold and gripping demonstration of how the group has been able to sustain its hypnotic spell equally at subliminal and extroverted energy levels on a near-decade’s worth of stages. The two-CD 200 More Miles pulls together small club dates and Royal Albert Hall triumphs, revisiting familiar covers (“Sweet Jane,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Walking After Midnight,” “Blue Moon”) and prime originals (“‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel,” “If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man”), all receiving subtle, sturdy, stirring, painterly renditions.
With the quartet moving to a new label (which soon prompted the release of an RCA-years compilation), Lay It Down returns the group to its sparest musical setting since the debut, with the four core members only occasionally augmented by organ, strings and pedal steel. “Small blessings laid upon us / Small mysteries unfold,” sings Timmins, and she might as well be describing the album’s modest intentions. Despite the occasional strident fuzz chord, the group mostly hunkers down in unrushed, bluesy intimacy — without actually playing the blues. By now the Junkies are as easy to take for granted as a well-worn sofa, but few groups imbue absence (of a lover, of feeling itself) with such beauty (“Lonely Sinking Feeling,” “Now I Know”) or explore the commonplace with such moving insight (“Bea’s Song,” “Musical Key”).