By: Bill Clifford
Tune your radio dial to your favorite classic rock radio station and you know what you’re going to hear. Referencing an era roughly between the late '60s and early '80s, the formatted play list doesn’t deviate. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, regardless of whether you use sugar free strawberry preserve or Welch’s grape jelly, crunchy or creamy peanut butter, is none-the-less a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This may seem an awful analogy to begin a review with but in this case it fits. Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies - siblings Peter (drums), Michael (guitars) and Margo Timmins (vocals) with bassist Alan Anton - have been making music together for over 20 years. Whether listening to their sparsely recorded debut, Whites Off Earth Now (1986), the single mic marvel that put them on the map, The Trinity Sessions (1988), the stunning, thematic Black Eyed Man (1992) or their new ninth studio recording of original material, At The End of Paths Taken (Zoe), the song remains the same.
The classic Cowboy Junkies formula - gentle and elegant though sometimes haunting melodies lulled over by lush, indolent, yet soulful vocals - doesn’t veer. Working songwriters often take into account elements of their livelihood, which in the case of this album happens to be family ties. Opening track "Brand New World" runs down a laundry list of tedious adult issues against a somber backdrop of acoustic guitar. "Mouths to feed, shoes to buy, rent to pay, tears to cry," it moans while a remorseful string section reveals the darker realization that something (True love maybe?) is missing. On "Still Lost" the narrator doubts the religious foundations he's been taught and adhered to throughout his life. "Cutting Board Blues" severs with hurtful, vengeful electric guitars, but the overall somber mood returns on the string-laden "Spiral Down," written from the perspective of an elder finding peace as his mind begins to waiver.
Principle songwriter Michael Timmins explores the central theme of adulthood personally and openly on "Follower 2," which shows the world through the eyes of a parent who knows the end is near for his own father while realizing so much lays ahead for his own child. "I can’t bear to hear his breathing/ simply knowing what’s to come," sings Margo with penetrating resonance. On "Mountain," Margo’s bluesy, sullen vocals entwine over the Timmins’ family patriarch John A. reading a passage from his recently completed autobiography. Here, against a backdrop of searing electric guitars and dense strings, he ponders the world he's leaving behind for future generations. Closing track, "My Only Guarantee," based on a Philip Larkin poem, looks at childhood mockingly through the eyes of an adult, sung with irony over an innocent child’s choir of "La-la-la’s."
Like previous Cowboy Junkies recordings, richly textured country blues are the central musical motif. Margo’s spiritual and eloquent singing remains the prominent feature, providing depth and timbre to her brother's lyrics. Twenty years on, Michael takes a candid look at life and human connections through eyes of a middle-aged family man. Though you’re not likely to find these songs on classic rock radio, At The End Of Paths Taken is indeed a classic recording that leads the Cowboy Junkies anywhere but to the end of their own road.
JamBase | Canada
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