The Cowboy Junkies In Nomad’s Land
Prosperity discovers vice, adversity discovers virtue – Sir Francis Bacon
There are times when the manner of how we first experience new music informs those formative initial impressions, Recently, I had my first full experience of The Cowboy Junkies new album, Renmin Park, while cycling through traffic, negotiating downtown construction, striding through a crowded mall amid its sterile buzz of commerce and stumbling upon a rousing book store recital of Gershwin songs for a small, geriatric audience. Then the whole process was repeated in reverse as I returned home.
Renmin Park (available now as a download) is a song cycle that was, in its creation, informed by the sonic seepage of the modern world and, as a listening experience, it is enhanced by further immersion in the brouhaha of modern life. For those who continue to consign the Cowboy Junkies to the mellow-but-glum category characterized by their earliest work, it will come as a shock to hear such a contemporary, vital record coming from the Toronto-based band. For anyone who has observed and heard the group’s evolution over the past decades, though, Renmin Park will come as a welcome, thrilling realization of the promise the Junkies have exhibited or hinted at for many years. (See a feature I wrote about the Cowboy Junkies for No Depression in 2001 here).
The music of Renmin Park was inspired by band guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins’ experiences in China. Two of his three children were adopted from the country, and his family spent an extended period there, working, learning and experiencing another world. They based their Chinese journey in Jingjiang, and during his days there Timmins was drawn to the album’s titular park, where he would observe and record local musicians of varying degrees of skill but an unvaryingly high degree of commitment and passion. (Read more about the making of the music from Timmins here).
Timmins has said he was warmly embraced by the community, but its clear the experience inspired some unsettling music. It’s as if Timmins’ own stranger-in-a-strange-land reaction is paralleled by the seismic cultural convulsions China has undergone as it vaults from a hermetic way of life into selective openness and prosperity. Within his tour blog, Timmins took a crack at enumerating the album’s themes:
abandoned children, abandoned mothers….governments and their fetish for leather and steel…alienation…sights seen, voices heard, friendships formed….personal histories, myths, stories told…the incalculable advantage of the alternate perspective…the great divide, romance, the addictive rush of the broken heart…the benefit of early morning exercise….discovery….giraffes and small dogs….the capacity of the human mind for great harm…the capacity of the human heart for great good….diesel fumes….beauty and fear…scapegoats, heroes, and villains and the fine line that divides them all… inevitability…cultural appropriation, perhaps…human nature, mother nature…mercilessness….English philosophers…people.
“Stranger here/Smoke in my eyes/Strange taste on my tongue,” his sister Margo sings on the song “Stranger Here.” On “Cicadas,” what sounds like a field recording of the humming insects swarms underneath bassist Alan Anton’s propulsive bottom end as Margo and Mike jointly intone: “Here them buzzing in the trees?/A lot like us, a dying breed … Once again the simple truth/Is crushed beneath a leather boot”
Many of the songs on Renmin Park are built on or spiked with loops of sounds Timmins captured in China – performing orchestras, guttural street declarations, singing children, snippets of overheard music, dial tones and recorded operator messages – and the combination of those elements with the Junkies’ simmering music makes for some dread-filled songs. On “Sir Francis Bacon At The Net,” a loop of percussive Chinese street dialogue mingles with a shuddering rhythmic pattern underscored with slow mo buzz-saw guitars and another blurred tandem vocal between Mike and Margo.
There he stands
a mere mist of a thing
waiting his turn
to challenge the King.
He counts his time in centuries.
He lives on the smallest of mercies.
Timmins’ personal situation has positioned him at the vanguard of global economic, cultural and political circumstances at a vital time and place, something that has informed the most challenging and rewarding music of his career. That he is surrounded by a talented cast of collaborators who are able to provide strong, sympathetic support in converting those experiences into compelling music is no small mercy; it’s a triumph.
In other Cowboy Junkies news ….
Renmin Park is the first volume of a projected four-album series to be released in the next 18 months. Entitled The Nomad Series, volume two will be called Demons, an album of songs composed by longtime band associate Vic Chesnutt, who passed away late last year. The third volume is called Sing In My Meadow but has an as-yet-unspecified concept (“We need to keep a few options open,” the band writes on its website). The finale of the quartet will be entitled The Wilderness and is based around a set of songs the band has been writing and playing live in recent months. The whole project will also be the subject of a hardcover book elaborating on the songs and making of the music.
In another innovative move, the Junkies are offering fans a subscription service. Dubbed The Clubhouse (also the name of the band’s studio – the wellspring of much of this recent recording activity), a $150 subscription entitles buyers to all of the current and future music posted on the band’s website until the end of 2011. That includes many of the band’s studio albums and hundreds of exclusive live and unreleased studio recordings. Subscribers will also receive the Nomad Series music and books.