In both of AUK’s best albums ever polls The Cowboy Junkies ‘The Trinity Session’ scored highly, finishing at number 12 for the writers, and number 18 for our readers. For a group whose style is often the definition of languid or sparse to beat plenty of better known albums in polls, and not just ours, is perhaps surprising. When you consider how different it was in 1988 when as Diccon Johnson said in his ‘Classic Albums’ review last year “country was country, there was no alt- about it,” it becomes more understandable.
The Timmins family and bassist Alan Anton have held an unchanged line up for the whole of their recording career. Supplemented by guests both live and on record, notably multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird they use, mandolin, accordion, percussion and samples to add texture to their sound. Margo Timmins’ slow, sometimes lethargic delivery of her brother Michael’s songs has matured over time into one of the most mesmerising voices in music.
Cowboy Junkies have gone on ploughing their own furrow for the 20 years since ‘The Trinity Session’, and there are certainly ten, and more, albums you should consider adding to your collection. I could easily have added several others to the list but as a primer for the Cowboy Junkies. Start here.
Number 10: The Caution Horses (1990)
The album after the breakthrough. Recorded in a more conventional way, the slightly more polished sound does not detract from the appeal of songs like ‘Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning’. The tendency to open the songs with a harmonica brings a more ‘country’ feel. Musically more accomplished than ‘Trinity Session’, Jeff Bird’s Mandolin solo on’ Rock and Bird’ is a thing of beauty as is the guitar at the end of the same song. Arguably more accessible than its predecessor, it gained more airplay and became their first Platinum selling album.
Number 9: Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes (1999)
Exactly what it says, a collection of previously unreleased material. It includes some more experimental songs, opener ‘I Saw Your Shoes’ and their version of ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ which are more upbeat than much of their catalogue. At the end of the album is a hidden track. Margo Timmins’ mostly unaccompanied take on Springsteen’s ‘My Father’s House’. The massed Junkies choir at the end does detract from it a bit, but as a showcase for her remarkable voice this works. This was the first release on their reactivated Latent Recordings, and marks their shift to the independent recording world.
Number 8: Miles from Our Home (1998)
Our previous choice can be seen as a reaction to being chewed up and spat out by Geffen Records, and this album was the one that did it. Not universally popular with fans, John Leckie’s production is far more ‘pop’ than previous albums. It was mixed at Abbey Road, which may explain the slightly Beatles feel to ‘New Dawn Coming’ and the title song. Dissatisfied with the results much of the album was remixed by Michael Timmins and Chris Lord-Alge later on. The title song was a hit in their native Canada, but the album failed to sell as well as any of their previous albums and they were dropped by Geffen, who should probably take the blame for the failure. An outlier in their catalogue but still worth a listen for the hint at roads not taken.
Number 7: In the Time Before Llamas (2003)
The rest of the world got ‘Waltz Across America’, we got this bizarrely titled disc, taken from recordings for the BBC at the Royal Albert Hall and in Manchester. The BBC have a particular way of recording that suits the Cowboy Junkies sound, meaning we got the better end of the deal. ‘Waltz Across America’ is worth hearing however, especially for me as Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over The Rhine featured among the additional musicians for this tour.
Number 6: One Soul Now (2004)
For this album they recorded their rehearsal sessions and found that the playing on many of these was fresh and vibrant. ‘He Will Call You Baby’ was recorded as the band was learning the arrangement giving a slightly tentative feel to the song. Sold with an E.P. of covers featuring Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road‘ and The Cure’s ‘Seventeen Seconds‘, the intense at times claustrophobic sound is another step in the band’s evolution. Peter Timmins’ drumming is particularly good on this album.
Number 5: Nomad Series, Vol.1 Renmin Park (2010)
Six years on and the band has shifted again. A more impressionistic palette of sounds. Influenced by Michael Timmins’ three months living in China in 2008. Part of their Nomad series where the theme is just to produce four albums in eighteen months, to force creativity onto the band. The name for the series came from the set of paintings used for the cover images. Organ, samples, percussion and piano make the sound on this album very different to earlier work. Margo Timmins’ voice and the songwriting tie it into the band’s catalogue though, and you could never mistake this for anything other than a Cowboy Junkies album.
Number 4: Nomad Series, Vol.4 The Wilderness (2012)
This album is a reflection on Winter. Michael Timmins, “started to think in terms of an album of songs reflecting on the lives of characters I’d written about early in the bands career and bringing those characters 20 years into the future to see where their lives were at now”. The music also reflects back to albums like ‘The Caution Horses’ and ‘Black Eyed Man’ being far more open than the dense sound of ‘Open’ and ‘Renmin Park’. Having experimented on the other three Nomad albums this feels like a resolution and coming home to their signature sound.
Number 3: Ghosts (2020)
Recorded following the loss of the Timmins siblings’ mother in 2018, this was originally planned as a bonus album for a remastered version of previous album ‘All That Reckoning’ it was eventually released digitally. Alan Anton’s bass has underpinned so much of the band’s music over the years and hear he is particularly good, perhaps supporting his bandmates in their loss. The angry ‘(You Don’t Get to) Do It Again’ showcases Anton and Michael Timmins’ guitar very effectively. Closer ‘Ornette Coleman’ is mostly solo Mandolin with a brief presumably sampled piece of Coleman saxophone and a six line verse in praise of the late free jazz pioneer.
Number 2: Lay It Down (1996)
Their most ‘rock’ album, and the first for Geffen. There was a big push to make ‘A Common Disaster’ a hit, and the chiming guitar hook is certainly catchy enough. Recorded with REM’s producer John Keane there is an unmistakably REM feel to ‘A Common Disaster’. The rest of the album is more usual Junkies fare, although the outside producer does seem to free Michael Timmins up to play more experimental guitar than earlier albums. Despite this being the first time they used strings, this has a more standard rock instrumentation than earlier records as well. With a bit more push from Geffen this could have been as big as an REM album.
Number 1: 200 More Miles: Live Performances 1985–1994 (1995)
The last album in their contract for RCA, this compiles 10 years of touring in to a double album. Including Margo Timmins’ onstage introductions gives a unity to the album, and it is surprisingly consistent over the years the material is drawn from. Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ is as good as any version of a Johnson song, and is followed by ‘State Trooper’ from their first gig, showing the sound was in place even then. There are a lot of covers in this set, ‘Sweet Jane’ , ‘Lost My Driving Wheel’ and ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ being the best. If you want the Cowboy Junkies distilled down to their purest essence find it on this album.