When a band renowned for sparse arrangements collides with a culture as dense as modern-day China, something has to give. The first of four albums that will comprise their ambitious Nomad Series (all to be released in the next 18 months), Renmin Park unfolds like a film score to songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins’ three-month visit to China. Pushing the band’s sound into new creative waters, the album remains surprisingly cohesive as it melds field recordings of the cacophonies of Chinese life (parades, propane sellers, schoolchildren) with the Toronto band’s signature style.
Michael’s passion for the Chinese culture that engulfed him seeps into every crevice of the music much like Sofia Coppola’s love of Japan colored each scene in Lost In Translation. Musically, the band retains their distinctive vibe with Alan Anton’s cascading bass lines percolating dangerously under the empyreal vocals of Margo Timmins (best heard on “Stranger Here”). However, new sonic textures, the ambient noises of China and even a few appropriate lead vocals by Michael make Renmin Park the band’s most diverse and challenging album to date.
The Chinese government’s shadow of influence does not go unnoticed (“A Few Bags of Grain” and “Cicadas”) and two ambitious translations of Chinese pop songs bolster the band’s reputation when it comes to interesting covers. Their version of Xu Wie’s “My Fall” (the original sounds like a b-side to Cutting Crew’s “(I Just Died) In Your Arms”) floats beautifully over strings and could slide easily into mainstream radio rotations. At times, the lyrics become almost impenetrable (“Sir Francis Bacon At the Net”) and threaten to lose the band in the swirling din of a badminton game looped under the rhythm section.
According to singer Margo Timmins, the title track of the album was the hardest for her to record and it was almost abandoned. Lucky for the listener, the singer persevered. Misleadingly simple, the pull of two lovers framed by a simple acoustic waltz reminds the listener of the universal heart that beats regardless of surroundings and captures Cowboy Junkies doing what they do best.
NOTE: The band is providing free streaming of the album and a wealth of background material on the creation of Renmin Park at www.cowboyjunkies.com