Monday, July 19, 2010

CD Odyssey Disc 155: Cowboy Junkies

Although I've been on a bit of a new CD purchasing rampage, the latest entry in the DVD Odyssey is one of the discs I've owned the longest.

Disc 155 is...The Caution Horses
Artist: Cowboy Junkies

Year of Release: 1990

What’s Up With The Cover?: I dunno. The band walks around the corner of some old building in the fading light. I like the light in this picture, but whenever I see a picture of an old building in beautiful light I prefer it when there aren't a bunch of people in the way of the shot. This was a problem on our recent trip to Paris and London, you can imagine - there's always someone in front a famous building.

I'm not sure why the Cowboy Junkies are all assembled in front of this building. Maybe it is famous to them. Anyway, I'll rate this cover the dreaded...OK.

How I Came To Know It: This is one of those where I went to the record store looking for a different album (In this case, "The Trinity Sessions") but it wasn't there, so I bought something else by the same artist. I recognized "Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning" which was a minor radio hit at the time, so I went for it. I'm glad I did.

How It Stacks Up: I have four Cowboy Junkies albums, including "The Trinity Sessions" (they stocked it eventually). Of the four, "The Caution Horses" is by far my favourite. I'm glad it was there that day.

Rating: 4 stars.

Little known fact I remember from a Cowboy Junkies interview back when this came out - the album's name comes from the band one day following a horse trailer. On the trailer it had that warning, "Caution: Horses". The band liked the sound of it, and they changed caution from a directive to an adjective. I don't think it is a great title, but I like knowing the story without looking anything up on wikipedia.

The record itself is an understated and moody Canadian alternative folk album. Lead singer Margot Timmins is at her most breathy and introspective. When she sings on this record it is like she's whispering her secrets into the mirror, and you're just evesdropping. For all that, her voice is beautiful and its quiet honesty draws you in.

On later records it was said that Margot "found her voice" meaning she sang out with more conviction. This is true, but later records also lost some of the raw edge in the process, and never matched what was accomplished on "The Caution Horses."

The playing is similarly understated but sincere, and I enjoyed picking out the subtle little pieces of mandolin and steel guitar punctuating many of these songs. I can see why people have mixed reaction to the steel guitar (it's usually previous exposure to New Country that makes for a bad association). That said, anyone who isn't moved by a mandolin must be missing some vital organ.

The lyrics on this record are also top notch, in particular I love the opening of my favourite song, 'Cause Cheap Is How I Feel":

"It's the kind of night that's so cold, when you spit
it freezes before it hits the ground.
And when a bum askes you for a quarter, you give a dollar
if he's out tonight he must be truly down."

That's not just cold - that's Canada cold, my friends.

"Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning" has a line that formed a piece of philosophy for me back when I was twenty - "Telephone's ringing, but I don't answer it/'cause everybody knows that good news always sleeps till noon."

I dunno if this is true, but it sure makes sense when Margot sings it.

"The Caution Horses" also features a remake of Neil Young's song "Powderfinger". For easily fifteen years, I thought this song was a Cowboy Junkies song, until I got more heavily into Neil Young and bought 1979's "Rust Never Sleeps." There it was, right alongside "Pocahontas" which I had thought since 1995 was a Crash Vegas song. Oops and more oops.

Neil Young's "Powderfinger" is a masterpiece, but I think the Cowboy Junkies' version is its equal. Which is saying something, because when it comes to Canadian alternative folk music, Neil Young is the man.

Because "The Caution Horses" is so quiet and introspective it takes a couple of listens to appreciate how truly great a record it is. Also, it doesn't really suit the car, where it fights to compete with background engine sounds and traffic. That said, I defy you to put it on headphones, listen without interrupting yourself, and not fall in love with Margot Timmins.

There's another favourite saying of mine - one I think I made up myself - or at the very least I've forgotten the origin: "True beauty steals its way into only the quietest of souls."

I'm not sure if that's true either, but listening to this album makes it easy to believe.

Best tracks: Sun Comes Up - It's Tuesday Morning, 'Cause Cheap Is How I Feel, Powderfinger, , Thirty Summers, Witches

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