Sunday, November 10, 2013

Most under-appreciated group of the '00s

As we worked on this edition, we suddenly felt this infusion of warmth.

How's everything, everything?
Everything, everything?
You're missing
You're missing
You're missing

"Oh, right," you say, "Bruce Springsteen."

Did you miss the headline?

Bruce and the E. Street Band are probably one of the two most overpraised groups of the '00s (the other would be U2).  Both had little to offer in the decade and preening egos that got in the way of music.

No, we're talking about an album with a cover of "You're Missing."  And a cover of U2's "One."  And a cover of John Lennon's "I Don't Want To Be A Soldier" -- in fact, an album of nine covers and two originals.

We're talking about The Cowboy Junkies and their 2005 masterpiece Early 21st Century Blues.

In October of 2005, we wrote:

If you ever enjoyed the Cowboy Junkies, this is the album to get. Kicking off with Dylan's "License To Kill," the Junkies find the groove and don't let go. The rich textures of their strongest tracks are evident throughout the entire album. Rebecca says if there was a Rock 'n Roll Church to go with the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, the Cowboy Junkies would perform early morning services with this lineup. When Kat sent out the cry for everyone to try to grab up a copy of this CD (sent out the cry Saturday afternoon) there were some grumblings. Elaine felt that she'd been burned by the Junkies in the past with albums that featured four or five key songs and then seemed to run out of steam. Early 21st Century Blues won her over and she feels it's like sitting at a table up front in a small club while the Junkies are on fire and hitting all the right notes.

Jess noted the guitar work (Michael Timmins) on "Two Soldiers" as a stand out with "You're Missing" as a close runner up. Bruce Springsteen fan Mike felt that the Junkies actually improved on Springsteen's version of "You're Missing." One thing that stood out to him was the conversational style of Margo Timmins singing. On The Laura Flanders Show Saturday night, Margo Timmins spoke of the shock it must be getting the news that someone you loved had just died in Iraq and how, if it were, she might be thinking that morning before the news came in, how he always left his shoes lying in the hall. Her singing on this song perfectly captures the quiet moments that emerge in the face of shocking news.

As 2005 ended, Kat picked the album as one of the year's best:

Early 21st Century Blues. This Cowboy Junkies CD actually got national exposure . . . via The Laura Flanders Show. If others had followed Flanders' lead, this might have been one of the more talked about albums of 2005. The album features two original songs and nine covers. Among the covers are songs by Bob Dylan, from his pre-brand days. I have to be in the mood for their version of John Lennon's "I Don't Want To Be A Solider." Wally enjoyed this but Cedric and I felt that the combination of the Junkies' understated approach and Rebel's rap were an uneasy mix. The album ends on a high note, a cover of U2's "One." Unlike on Mary J. Blige's latest album, you don't wait for Bono to shut up and get out the way so that Blige can work her magic. That's because he's not featured. Margo Timmins' voice is haunting on this song and the covers of Bruce Springsteen's "You're Missing" and "Brothers Under The Bridge" should have resulted in saturation airplay. If you missed this CD, locate a copy and listen.

The Cowboy Junkies are Michael Timmins (guitar), Margo Timmins (lead vocalist), Peter Timmins (drums) and Alan Anton (bass).  Canadians Michael, Margo and Peter are three of six siblings (another sibling is actress Cali Timmins).  The three Timmins and Anton first came to international attention with 1988's The Trinity Session and a radical reworking of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane."

Radical reworking?

On the tours for U2's The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, when Lone Justice would open the show, Bono would often show up to duet on "Sweet Jane" with Maria McKee and their version was praised by critics.  (You can hear one performance of it on the Lone Justice collection The World Is Not My Home.)  The Cowboy Junkies didn't take the Velvet Underground template and try to improve on it.  They reworked it, slowed it down and turned it into a haunting masterpiece.

Early 21st Century Blues tapped into that same vein of longing and loss and in doing so became one of their two studio masterpieces of the '00s.  Their other masterpiece?


2007's at the end of paths taken.  Reviewing the album, Kat wrote:

I was expecting the next studio CD to coast -- and more than happy with that expectation based on the level reached. She has shaped up to be everything so many wanted from Annie Lennox's solo career. But she's growing by leaps and bounds these days and to listen at the end of paths taken is to feel as if she's been holding out on you. There are moments she grabs in the repeated phrase "And the rain comes down" ("Follower 2") that are completely unexpected and 100% thrilling.
This isn't a Margo Timmins solo album and after the you get over still more vocal growth, the thing that will probably hit you next is what a band the group's become. They're in there supporting the vocals and driving the songs. I just mentioned "Follower 2" and it would be a huge diservice to move on to any other song without noting the amazing drum work going on in that song. It is so inspired and pushes the song to another level without overtaking it. The Timmins and Anton have to be the best music combo today.

And the masterpiece on this excellent album?  "Spiral Down."

Loop upon the self
Look upon the other
We need a better understanding
Or we'll spiral down

It's haunting and beautiful and part of the reason the album didn't sell very well is that they made no video for "Spiral Down."  And when fans did, someone had a problem and the videos removed from YouTube.

Belatedly, the group realized what they had in the song.  So in 2011, they were promoting it and offering a free download.  The smartest thing they could have done is ensured that fan videos stayed up at YouTube because to hear that song is to be possessed by it.

Doubt us?

Visit this Rolling Stone page and stream the song now.

Michel Timmins wrote this amazing song -- a song that surpasses the textures and richness the group gave to "Sweet Jane."

And while it's the gem of at the end of paths taken -- and maybe of the group's entire career -- the 2007 album is one of the undiscovered masterpieces of the '00s.  The group itself remains one of the most talented and most under-appreciated of the last decade.

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