Cowboy Junkies: One Soul Now
Sound/Style: Moody, minimalistic pop/rock
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Canada’s Cowboy Junkies made an auspicious entrance onto the alternative scene in the late 1980s, when music critics acclaimed their album The Trinity Sessions. The media buzz dimmed somewhat as the 1990s unfolded, but the band's fiercely loyal following has allowed the sibling-based quartet to maintain a modest career and release an album every few years or so. They shift their stylistic emphasis slightly from time to time but never veer far from the low-key atmosphere of The Trinity Sessions, the disc against which all the Junkies’ subsequent records are judged. Their first studio CD in three years, One Soul Now uses a formula of three parts darkened drone to one part sunny pop/rock - sunny, that is, in the relative sense that a sliver of light in a doorway seems bright if you’ve been locked in a pitch-black room.
Tracks like the slo-mo "From Hunting Ground To City" and the ode to flawed relationships "He Will Call You Baby" ooze forth like a slow leak, ebbing more than flowing. Guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins uses the anemic pieces as a backdrop for extended, guttural guitar solos in a vintage Neil Young style. The pairing of Timmins’ grungy six-string work and his impressionistic, poetically aspiring lyrics is a Junkies trademark, one that results in the sound of a grad student garage band. Many songs hover near a minor-key center, with occasional major chords reaching up as if out of a deep hole, only to slide back into dimmer territory. This provides effective contrast on the timeless-sounding title track, which features an airy, pastel-shaded chorus. Elsewhere, the record’s ambiguous tonality holds it somewhere between unsettling and monotonous.
In his songwriting Timmins - via the warm alto voice of his sister Margo - seems to defend the record’s somewhat morose tone at one point, saying "this ain’t no depression, it’s just notes falling slow." He backs up this claim on "The Stars Of Our Stars," a mildly propulsive pop/rocker that, while falling short of optimistic, points to the daily dance in which the sun and the stars oscillate, and "you catch a glimpse, make a start with an eager heart." The tempo also quickens on a pair of songs about parenthood, "My Wild Child" and "The Slide." The latter, lifted by a brisk rhythm and a particularly concise and melodic guitar break, speaks of freely surrendering to the alternately chaotic and invigorating swirl of family life. In the puzzling prayer that bookends the verses, God is perceived as a "pa" who is "cruel and demanding," perhaps giving credence to the theory that people interpret God the Father through the limiting filters of their own imperfect upbringings.
Though less than inspiring in its take on the world as a random and ironic collision of circumstances where hope appears only in glimmer-sized doses, One Soul Now is a mildly interesting and not altogether dour excursion that attempts honestly to capture the flavor of reality’s inevitable pros and cons.
Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.