That the venerable Canadian band Cowboy Junkies should preface their new album, Songs of the Recollection, with a comment that, long before they were musicians, they were music fans, should be no great surprise. Anyone in the least bit familiar with their work will be already aware of their erudite taste in that department, such is the body of covers work they have built up over the years, on their own recordings and their myriad contributions to innumerable tribute albums. Unsurprisingly, we here are big fans and have featured them, or of them, more than the once.
Songs of the Recollection brings together some obscure oldies recorded for other projects (just over half the album’s tracks being previously available), plus a few newly minted ones; as ever, the band extends across genres and styles in their own idiosyncratic way, making it feel the songs were specially written for their spare minimalism, all spiky guitars in slo-mo, and Margo Timmins’ haunting voice, a glimpse of Canada’s icy north.
The album kicks off with David Bowie’s “Five Years,” that warhorse that opened his Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust of (gulp) 50 years ago this June. It is a shock to hear how Timmins pitches her vocal, sounding, against the same staccato drumbeat, so similar to Bowie that it spooks. That surprise aside, she and the band gradually instill their glacial imprint, and it is a grandly impressive way to open proceedings, the build coming in an altogether more threatening guise, not least courtesy of Michael Timmins’ searing guitar asides.
Their 1999 contribution to the Gram Parsons tribute album Return Of the Grievous Angel follows. Back then, speaking as more a Gram fan than a Junkies junkie, I found their slower take on “Ooh, Las Vegas” then a little odd and off kilter. The passage of time has remedied that for me; if anything, I find I prefer it to the original. Unsettling and unnerving, it feels more Hunter S. Thompson than Glitter Gulch.
The band maintains that sense of alienation into the next song, if this time heightening the mood already there, with a consummate reproduction of the Jagger-Richards “No Expectations,” originally from Beggars Banquet. A stately and classy rendition, the piano parts more austere, with steel adding extra timbres felt, yet absent from the original. How the Stones should have done it, even.
Cowboy Junkies have never been shy about their admiration of Neil Young. Many of his songs are scattered across their repertoire, and a double shot of them appears here. “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” gets an entirely unexpected revision, taking some time to reveal itself, a truly desert iteration, a scorching sun and swirling vultures the mood imbued. “Love In Mind” is an unmemorable deeper cut from Time Fades Away, a simple enough piano ballad in Shakey’s rendition. The transcription to guitar gives a more fulsome sense of the blues within the lyric, finding life where, frankly, little seemed evident.
Fellow Canadian figurehead Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel” originally popped up on Beautiful, a 2003 tribute to the songsmith from, largely, fellow Canadians. A rare misstep, it is fine enough, but compares ill against the rest of the album, feeling a little too CJ by numbers, mainly as Lightfoot is more convincing in his own. A pair of sublime guitar solos peps it up, mind.
It is comparatively rare for the Junkies, unlike just about everybody else, to cover Bob Dylan (no, don’t bother to send in all the other CJ Dylan covers, I am aware…) , so I was intrigued to see my information suggested this was a new version. However, it turns out to be, or sounds identical to their contribution to Uncut magazine’s Dylan Revisited project of last year. “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is, of course, recent Dylan, from Rough and Rowdy Ways, one of the more wistful tracks present. Dylan’s cracked tones, so far at least, are more emotive than Timmins’ more trademarked tone, so file under the Lightfoot song above.
Vic Chesnutt’s “Marathon” comes from Demons (reviewed here), albeit one of the extra digital-only tracks. Chock full of effects and embellishments, what it gains in gloss it loses in charm, and I am confessing time is beginning to drag, a hitherto unappreciated part of previous CJ listening. (It remains a sly pleasure to recall the ethereal voice of Timmins encountering Chesnutt’s “piss on the toilet” seat lyric……)
I would love to say the band go out with a bang. “Seventeen Seconds,” another re-release, is every bit as powerful as it was the first time around, with the jagged shards of guitar contrasting superbly with Margo’s never more delicate vocal. If you don’t already know it, then, yes, it closes the album emphatically. But that’s the rub: new it ain’t, leaving a slight tang of is that all there is? This feels like a stopgap, some filler to keep the fanbase going. Hopefully, it won’t annoy them the way it annoyed me.
In their shoes, I’d have wanted to wait until they had amassed a bit more new material. New covers would be fine, I should add, such is their track record, with the four new songs easily up to their exacting standards. Fans of Cowboy Junkies, and of covers in general, will already have the other five songs. Newcomers to the band might be better pointed elsewhere and to earlier work. Which is hard and painful to say.
Songs of the Recollection Tracklisting:
1. Five Years – David Bowie cover
2. Ooh Las Vegas – Gram Parsons cover
3. No Expectations – Rolling Stones cover
4. Don’t Let It Bring You Down – Neil Young cover
5. Love In Mind – Neil Young cover
6. The Way I Feel – Gordon Lightfoot cover
7. I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You – Bob Dylan cover
8. Marathon – Vic Chesnutt cover
9. Seventeen Seconds – The Cure cover