Tuesday, April 26, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 267: Cowboy Junkies

This next album is one of those ones that is critically excellent, but didn't truly resonate with me emotionally until I had it out of the car and on to headphones as I wrote this review.

Disc 267 is...Pale Sun, Crescent Moon

Artist: Cowboy Junkies

Year of Release: 1993

What’s Up With The Cover?: It is an apple hanging on a piece of twine. I've never really liked this cover - it is hard to read the text behind it with my colour deficient vision. The back of the album has the song titles written in a clear font that makes them almost impossible to read. Just list the tracks next time, Junkies - and as for the cover - just the apple would've been fine, without all the text cluttering up the place. Each to his own, I suppose...

How I Came To Know It: I loved 1990's "The Caution Horses" (reviewed back at Disc 155) and so I bought this record, thinking it was their next release. As it happens, when looking it up, I discovered an album in between - 1992's "Black Eyed Man" which has a song written for the band by Townes Van Zandt and a cover of Van Zandt's masterpiece "To Live Is To Fly". Looks like there is a CD purchase in my future...

How It Stacks Up: I have four Cowboy Junkies albums. This one is pretty good, but can't beat out "The Caution Horses" so I''m going to put it tied for second.

Rating: 4 stars, but I meant to give it 3 (see below).

As alluded to in the introduction, "Pale Sun, Crescent Moon" is an album that I have a strange relationship with.

From a pure songwriting perspective, I think it is the strongest of the Cowboy Junkies albums I own - particularly the powerhouse first four tracks, "Crescent Moon", "First Recollection", "Ring On the Sill" and "The Anniversary Song".

The latter of this foursome was a radio hit in its day, but I don't hold that against it. It is a song about how much more enjoyable the world is when you have someone to share its beauty with. Naturally, it always makes me think of my wife, Sheila, who not only keeps me going when I think my tank is empty, but helps me make sure I take in the rich details of the passing landscape along the way.

The album has a lot of great songs about relationships, and while a bit schmaltzy, I hope you'll forgive me for indulging in "The Anniversary Song." Besides, there are plenty of darker, more complicated love songs including the aforementioned "Ring On The Sill" and "Cold Tea Blues" lest you think the Cowboy Junkies have inexplicably lightened up.

The album also branches out into more varied storytelling, character studies of a rural and frozen north that perfectly suit Margo Timmins Cirrus-thin voice. So high, so insubstantial, and always floating above the musical arrangements without overpowering them in the mix. It is a voice for lonely contemplation, where the songs pose complicated questions, and leave you no answers other than the wind blowing back at you.

My one quibble would be with the production. At this juncture, the Junkies are exploring a more alt-rock sound, and their production has progressively become more complicated. These songs are some of their best stuff, and I can't help but wonder what a song like "The Post" would sound like with a more traditional rock arrangement, or whether "Ring on The Sill" would sound better with a few less layers of sound.

To which the Junkies might retort, "we recorded them the way we wanted them" or, to quote "Cold Tea Blues":

"But if I measure the sugar
to satisfy your expectant tongue
Then that is love,
Sitting untouched and growing cold."

Well played, Margo. And chastened by the power of this imagined musical argument, I will give this record 4 stars, even though I planned up to this very sentence to give it 3. It stole very quietly into my soul, but I must admit it got there - and on its own terms, no less.

Best tracks: Crescent Moon, Ring On the Sill, The Anniversary Song, The Post, Cold Tea Blues

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