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Cowboy Junkies - Miles From Our Home

Quaaludes to the Wake
by: michael karpinski

Let's face facts: The Cowboy Junkies will never be mistaken for a party band. The Barenaked Ladies, they are not, despite hailing from the same hometown of Toronto, Ontario. But Canadian kinship aside, the two groups could not possibly be more polar-opposite. In drug parlance (they do call themselves Junkies, after all), the brothers and sister Timmins and bassist Alan Anton's backwater, often Orbison-esque laments and odes to loneliness have always been more heroin than hemp. The Ladies bring cocaine to the rave. The Cowboys: Quaaludes to the wake.

Their seventh album, Miles From Our Home, finds the Cowboy Junkies mining familiar thematic terrain, albeit with some subtle but notably atypical sonic embellishments. Building on 1996's Lay It Down, new producer John Leckie (Radiohead, The Verve, Stone Roses) gooses the Junkies' traditionally minimalist mix with just the right pinches of harmonica, harmonium, pedal steel, and strings. Margo Timmins' instantly distinguishable, whiskey-warm vocals (a huskier cousin to Karen Carpenter's aching alto) are lushly layered, as are primary songwriter Michael Timmins' graceful guitar arpeggios and judiciously integrated array of electric riffs and fills (reminiscent of R.E.M. in Automatic/Fables dark-folk mode).

Musically and lyrically, Miles treads a decidedly tenuous line (that is, when it can be bothered to abandon the lithium-listlessness of dormant porch swings and rickety rocking chairs). A work thoroughly drenched in melancholy introspection, it nonetheless succeeds in never quite crossing over into maudlin morbidity. The 10.5 songs essentially serve as a series of haunting psalms on life, loss, and the meaning of it all, while the songs' narrators remain placidly passive in the ever-evolving face of fate - watching, waiting, wondering, but never surrendering. Thus, "No Birds Today," an obsessive, desolate dirge of loves lost and lives misled, and "Blue Guitar," a ghostly folk-blues eulogy to the sadly undersung Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, are more than balanced in their ethereal bleakness by the soaring, forward-looking chorus of "New Dawn Coming" and the undeniable snap, crackle, and pop of the title track.

The album ends (officially-speaking) with the utterly uplifting "Those Final Feet," a gospel-tinged hymn driven by the unlikely honky-tonk trinity of piano, organ, and washboard-against-a-rusty-tub percussion. "Life is loss," it seems to say. "But so long as there is life, then all is not lost."

Artist Cowboy Junkies
Album Miles From Our Home
Label Geffen
Date 06.30.98