It's been a while, but the four members of Cowboy Junkies can actually say that they feel like a band again. For a long time, the instrument playing members of the Canadian group best known for its droning remake of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" retreated into the shadows behind the sultry murmurings of lead vocalist Margo Timmins. It didn't matter that Timmins told the journalists who were drawn to her like moths to a flame that much of the credit for the Junkies' spacy, country-tinged sound belonged to her older brother Michael, who has written most of the music and lyrics for the group. It didn't matter if she said good things about her younger brother Peter on drums, or bassist Alan Anton. It was Margo's hypnotic, half-awake voice lulling listeners into something approaching a trance state that caught reviewers' attention. Everything else was just background.
It's certainly been an odd position for Michael Timmins, not just because the words are his, but because it was he and Anton who founded what became the Junkies; Margo, on her first try as vocalist, didn't even make the cut. Still, he hasn't expressed much dissatisfaction about how things turned out, and given the more visible stance he takes on the Junkies' latest CD, Lay It Down, it may be a moot point anyway. For the Junkies, the most notable change of late is Michael's decision to step out of the shadows, writing more guitar parts, soloing more and creating better arrangements on which to layer Margo's haunting vocals. Lay It Down is obviously the product of a group, not a singer and some supporting musicians.
On Lay It Down, Michael's vision hasn't wavered. His lyrics still adorn a poignant landscape of tattered relationships and unerring devotion. But though the content hasn't changed, the context has: Lay It Down is the first major label release by the Junkies not to be on RCA. After the group's 1993 effort Pale Sun Crescent Moon stiffed despite critical acclaim, the group decided to get out while the getting was good -- and before, Michael says, things turned nasty. So the live 200 Miles was released to finish off their RCA contract, and the Junkies signed with Geffen.
Whether it's the push from a new label, the jolt that comes from making a change or simply a question of timing and chance, Lay It Down, and its unlikely hit single "Common Disaster," has given the Junkies their first notable radio play since "Sweet Jane." That this CD should return them to the spotlight is, Margo has said, appropriate.
"Lay It Down is the end of our first phase and our first era," she told a Dallas reporter. "And this is the beginning of a second phase or second era for the Cowboy Junkies."
For reasons he can't understand, Michael Timmins says, critics have latched onto the idea that Lay It Down is a throwback to the spare sound on the band's 1988 major label debut, The Trinity Sessions. Recorded using one ambient microphone in a Toronto church, Trinity featured the band's minimalist cover of "Sweet Jane," on which Margo redefined the word "whisper."
While both The Trinity Sessions and Lay It Down feature only the Junkies -- as opposed to Pale Sun Crescent Moon and 1992's Black Eyed Man, both of which used guest musicians -- the two CDs hardly sound alike. Lay It Down's "Common Disaster," for example, abandons completely the desolate sound of eight years ago. It's actually the closest the group has come to really rocking out, its best hook coming from Alan Anton's deep, resonant bass line.
If you really want to talk throwback, Lay It Down actually goes way, way back -- say, to the acid-rock sound of the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. In his formative years as a musician, Timmins was a big fan of the Velvet Underground's strategy for composing a feel, not just music. That, combined with his love of country and blues, was the basis for the Junkies' Patsy-Cline-on-Valium approach.
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Friends since childhood, Michael Timmins and Anton formed their first band after finishing college in 1979. They auditioned Margo, but decided not to use her. It wasn't until Timmins and Anton returned to Toronto in 1985 following stints in New York and London that Margo found her niche, and younger brother Peter filled out the lineup on drums. "It was just a matter of needing the right kind of voice for this kind of music -- and Margo had it," Timmins says of his sister's successful second tryout.
As a result of the guitar-based sound the group concocted for Lay It Down, Michael moves center stage with his sister on the current tour. What will he do with all the extra attention?
Anything but overplay, he says.
"I always think that doing a guitar solo introduces this element of danger into things," Michael says. "I tend to do them in an improvisational way, rather than the same thing all the time. So I'll be tossing myself over the cliff, and hoping I land on my feet."
Cowboy Junkies perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, at Cullen Performance Hall, University of Houston. Tickets are $22.50. For info, call 629-3700.