Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Reformed Junkies

By Brenda Doherty

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  The Cowboy Junkies haven't stood still. From their humble beginnings of self-released records in the mid-1980s to the stellar heights of Top 20 Modern Rock chart hits and catalog sales of more than 4 million records worldwide, they are a band that has arrived. Their latest CD will make fans of their older records turn their heads. From the title track of Miles From Our Home, it's clear that the band has made a departure from their languid, bluesy, minimal sound in favor of a more polished pop approach. More than a musical manifesto, it was a literal truth at the time of the recording. Recorded entirely in a 150-year-old farmhouse outside Toronto, the new location spurred the tidal pull of familiar surroundings, and they captured it on tape.

"We were in this amazing old house in a spectacularly beautiful environment, with a pond and a waterfall," says guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins. "The title track definitely relates directly to the fact that we were up there, away from our home. But it also suggests the idea that this album is quite far from where we started as a band."

The Cowboy Junkies broke through to an international audience when they self-released their second album, The Trinity Sessions. That record was captured in a church using only one microphone during a single 14-hour session at a cost of $250. Included was a slow version of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," a song that took off with major radio airplay, and landed the band a major label deal. That release remains an enduring document of the period and is the sound that most associate with the band.

"There are a lot of question marks in the songs on (Trinity) and a sense of frustration about the curves fate can throw," says Timmins. "But with that also comes a feeling of anticipation and, sometimes, joy. We can learn as we go along, and that brings
understanding and perhaps a sense of enlightenment as well. This time around, it was like we were making demos for ourselves, the way we would brainstorm in the studio."

The album, still hitting after a June release, is successful in part to production by John Leckie. Leckie is one of the hotter hands in the music industry, having also produced releases for the Verve, Radiohead and Kula Shaker. The band changed from recording their songs at home on a two-track recorder to a full studio on their Geffen label debut in 1996, Lay it Down. But the Cowboy Junkies used the studio with skill as more of an instrument in its own right as they grow more comfortable with Leckie.

"It's helpful to have someone good to help translate the songs," says Timmins. "We needed someone who could help us with the layering of instruments and vocals and strings. He gave us the confidence to try something different."

Leckie's hand behind the scene is evident in the opening cut of the new album, "New Dawn Coming," which jumps out of the speakers with bursts of expansive, multi-layered guitars, swirling feedback and a sweet-toothed Hammond B-3 organ. Elsewhere, on "Blue Guitar," pieces of the old Junkies slink out of the closet. Written with a deliberate, melancholic groove, the song is a tribute to a deceased Texas guitar legend who died in 1997.

"That's one of my abstract good-byes to Townes Van Zandt," says Timmins. "He was one of the greatest songwriters of our day. We had done a tour together a few years ago, and we kept in touch. Van Zandt wrote half of the song's lyrics, though he never recorded them. I wrote the rest."

For more than a decade, the band have continued to evolve, gaining fans along the way.

"I think ours is a healthy success story," says Timmins. "It's not a flashy one. We've never had an enormous hit. But that's probably the reason we're still around. We've been able to do what we want with our integrity intact. I think the point is to be honest and just continue doing what we do."


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