Thursday, October 04, 2018

Cowboy Junkies – All That Reckoning

Cowboy Junkies – All That Reckoning (Latent)

This venerable Toronto band now has 16 studio recordings under their belt (depending how you count). This, like 2010’s Remnin Park and 1996’s Lay It Down, is easily one of their best from the back half of their discography. It’s their first album of original material in eight years, so maybe guitarist Michael Timmins has been quietly crafting this strong set of songs since then, or maybe his work with Tom Wilson’s Lee Harvey Osmond inspired him here. Or maybe they finally realized what their secret weapon has been for 35 years now.

As a longtime fan, I’d propose this theory: the best Cowboy Junkies albums are the ones where bassist Alan Anton is brought to the fore. Why? Anton’s a fine bass player, but certainly not showy, and melodic only when he needs to be. He’s less noticeable than the musical genius of Jeff Bird, who provides musical colour on a variety of instruments, and it’s Michael Timmins who provides most of the fireworks—subtle and otherwise—during his guitar solos’ unique take on bluesy psychedelia, which are still refreshingly raw after all these years, refusing to succumb to slickness. Singer Margo Timmins is reliably consistent, engaging, and gets even better with age (as does drummer Peter Timmins): but on the band’s lesser records she can’t prop up a weak song on her own—and thankfully she doesn’t have to here.

So what is it about Anton? It’s less about what he actually plays, than the fact that when he’s up front in the mix beside Margo, everything else that makes the Cowboy Junkies great is dispersed judiciously for maximum effect. Less has always meant more for this band; the more layers they pile on, they less effective they’ve been. When those guitar swirls dance in and around Anton’s bass lines—regardless of the tempo—they weave a magical tapestry that elevates this band above all others in the same wheelhouse. It’s not what you have: it’s how you use it.

All that said, one of the best songs here is the closing track, “The Possessed,” which is mostly just Margo and a ukulele. And no, it’s not remotely twee, in part because, 30 years after “Misguided Angel,” this band still writes great songs about Satan.

Elsewhere, All That Reckoning is filled with the distemper of the day, with musings on hate and fear and a chorus that goes, “Sing me a song of America.” But it never gets clunky or preachy; Michael’s is too careful a writer to do that, and his character studies are as vivid as always. Just like the accompanying music, everything is in its right place.

When the Cowboy Junkies come through your town this year—a fall jaunt starts Oct. 10 in Kingston, with dates in Ottawa, Guelph, Burlington, Blyth, Markham, and Collingwood—don’t take them for granted. And give the bassist some love.  (July 13)

Stream: “All That Reckoning Pt. 1,” “Wooden Stairs,” “Shining Teeth”

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