Cowboy Junkies – Such Ferocious Beauty: Album Review

They’re back and they’re not happy. Galling new gothic country-blues noir from Toronto.

Release Date: 2nd June 2023

Label: Cooking Vinyl

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

Cowboy Junkies? Hell, they still going? Surely not; no new material for years and issuing repackaged/rebundled cover albums to prop up the brand. Wrongity wrong, and some, we here at ATB knowing they were far from spent when we caught them last year, but the new material barb might have cut a pucker or two. Until now, that is, with this absolute belter, simultaneously casting any such sadsack slander to the four winds, with their most vibrant release for yonks, all new, all stunning, ploughing furrows old, new and, improved, even. The sky is black with hats!

It has taken loss to power up their batteries to this degree, twofold, with the death of a parent, that complicated by dementia. Two deaths, in essence. That sucks in any band, but when three of them are siblings, and the fourth a kindergarten friend, that smacks across the whole. Bear also in mind that Ghosts, their 2020 release, in part addressed the death of the Timmins’ mother, and see this as a cumulative grief. With their trademark quiet storm and muted electrical feedback frenzy, these songs tackle all those difficult subjects that eventually catch up with us, with, to boot, a loose noose being applied about the neck of religion, that theme occupying a few of the caustic numbers. Lil’ sister Margo (Timmins) has never sounded more chilling and gaunt, big bro’ Michael more controlled than ever in his squalls of meticulous sonic mayhem, his guitar screaming softly in a psychedelia-infused maelstrom. At the business end, third sibling, Peter, shows just how much atmosphere can come from a standard drum kit, anchored by Alan Anton’s bass, adding melody to the lower pitches of his metronome.

With a sly nod to their blues roots; they were a blues band long before any alt. country tag appeared, the first words you hear, after a languid strum with thudding bass, are Timmins’ crooning “I woke up this morning“. But rather than any of the usual culprits, it follows with “didn’t know who I was; looked at the room, didn’t know where I was“, straight into an imagined chilling narrative from her father’s decaying cognition. The drums and peals of guitar crash in and there can’t be a bleaker song subject, additional shrieks of fiddle, from James McKie, an additional distraction. This Is What I Lost then lists the day by day diminishing returns. Music picks up after an abrupt end, awash with nightmare sounds of the apocalypse, before crunching into a full on cacophony, over which Timmins ekes out some melody, piano notes and bass together wreaking it into rhythmic shape. Like a fever dream, it is terrific. Hard To Build, Easy To Break is an emphatic Murder In The Trailer Park type slo-mo rocker, again the piano and bass making for the propulsive dynamo, flickers of wah-wah guitar leaking out all around the warning words of the message, addressed to would be world leaders: “Tend the flame that lit your way / stop worshiping the ash.” Both bass and keyboards come from Anton, the album’s producer, possibly understanding best how the lower registers should sound.

Not until track four does the more familar Canadiana seep into view, for Circe And Penelope, McKies’s fiddle casting long shadows around the almost Mediterranean mandolin pattern, Michael Timmins the player of what is actually listed as ukelele. Anyone thinking the Junkies were about to jettison that aspect of their oeuvre can now breathe again. And even more laid back is the almost acoustic Hell Is Real. Described as a haunted blues, found sounds both introduce and close the song, birdsong and what sounds like creaking wheels slowly turning, across a courtyard. Possibly a handcart. An angry song, the repeated “Jesus is coming” refrain feels more threat than celebration. Altogether spooky, with some sustained background organ notes, adding further testimony. Shadows 2, with twangy guitar and a Morricone meets Massive Attack drum pattern, shows a side to the band not fully appreciated previously. Sure, the constituent parts are pure CJ, but the percussion gives a whole new lustre to the brand. A song drawn from Michael’s sojourn at his father’s bedside, the shimmer is of a flickering film, the colours bleeding, ahead it sputtering to a close.

Drums again take the strain for Knives, a laid back piece of hypnotic whimsy, the organ again the backdrop for the gradual encroaching of fiddle. The vocals insistent, the fiddle acts as a brake, a buffer, against the constant click track of percussion. Anton adds layer upon layer, with the hint of menace getting ever closer. “Every man has a plan, until he’s punched in the mouth ” is the uncompromising start to (Mike Tyson) Here It Comes, another way of looking at the old “tell God your plans” trope, with spanish guitar meeting the crescendo of crashing percussion and losing. A second song that could grace a spaghetti western version of Greek mythology, the namedrop of Tyson all the more a counter-intuitive continuum between the three.

Throw A Match is almost boogie, at least in the guitar motif, disparate contrasts proving surprisingly effective co-conspirators in the Junkie’s MO. Once more the bass/piano combo is a masterful way of conveying depth, the bubbling bass notes, as Anton stretches out, memorable and masterful. A very Hendrix guitar solo streams out a gap between verses, and it has suddenly the song has become a high point. That sort of feels the end, with a slightly elongated gap before the closing song, Blue Skies, which is then an archetypical Timmins family lament, drawing together all the emotions exhibited here, finding, I hope, some solace, the picked guitar the bedrock for high and lonesome textures to slowly colour the sunset. Immaculately.

Less gentle, less calm than previously, this album is proof, were it needed, that the trials and tribulations of age are as every bit as fit a subject for, whatever you call it, rock, country, blues music. File alongside fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, for the content may not make you smile, but it will become familiar, sooner, if not later, with that familiarity surely breeding content.

Here’s a laidback studio live version of Shadows 2:

Cowboy Junkies online: website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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