Nothing included in the Cowboy Junkies’ latest, Open, is superfluous—not even the CD cover art design. The album title is the connecting thread to every aspect of the recording. David Houghton, the art director for the album, explained the dual meaning of the word. One aspect of the word is malevolent or “the idea of being open in a way that is dangerous”. Another aspect is beneficial, or “an open hand, open arms, an open smile”. Houghton continued by explaining the complex ambiguity of the word, saying that openness can lead to the unknown, and can mean acceptance and curiosity, but also vulnerability and exposure.
To capture these conflicting meanings, Houghton placed a striking image of a venus flytrap on the cover against a black backdrop. He explained that the image of the plant—wide open, ready to catch its prey—was a perfect example of something that was open yet threatening. Through the entirety of the album the Cowboy Junkies continue to dissect, define and re-define the meaning of open through their music and lyrics.
The Canadian band formed in 1985 after Michael Timmins and his friend Alan Anton had tried performing in several other unsuccessful bands. Timmin and Anton began playing with Timmin’s brother, Pete. But, they still needed a lead singer. So the Timmin brothers turned to their sister Margo. At first Margo would only sing in front of Michael, but when she finally sang for the whole group, they liked what they heard and the rest is history. They recorded their first album, Whites Off Earth Now, in a garage they’d named Studio 547 using only one microphone. Their second album, The Trinity Sessions, brought them critical acclaim.
The Cowboy Junkies haven’t changed all that much, nine albums since Whites Off Earth Now. Somehow the band has maintained critical success, without having to sell-out—a tricky feat for any artist. Open was recorded in much the same way as The Trinity Sessions. Michael Timmins wrote the majority of the songs over a year, and as they came together, the band tested them as they performed on a road tour. Once they felt the song was tight, they went into the studio and recorded it live. In other words, this recording is raw, pure, and untouched by overproduction.
The band itself has this to say about the album: “All in all we couldn’t be more pleased with the way this record has turned out. We set out to record a set of songs that reflected the menace and the beauty of life as we experience it. An album of menacingly beautiful songs is what we think Open has to offer.”
And, that is exactly what the Cowboy Junkies have accomplished. Open is the milestone recording that the Cowboy Junkies haven’t produced since The Trinity Sessions. What makes it such an exceptional work is how the songs seem at the same time both tightly constructed and free-flowing. It is this combination that creates resonant and illuminating songs that allude to the many meanings of being open.
Both musically and lyrically, the band tells stories and tries to define life and all its complexities. The music shifts from being haunting and melancholy to rowdy and turbulent. With each song the Cowboy Junkies lure the listener in further and further by their huge contrasts in mood from song to song.
Musically, the album is signature Cowboy Junkies-part folk, part country, part blues, part rock. There’s no one word that culminates their sound. Other than the basics, instrumentation includes mandolin, harmonica, eight-string bass, organ, piano and wurlitzer to create songs of varied textures and intensities.
The first song, “I Did It All for You”, begins eerily, with a tambourine joining a guitar. Right from the beginning Margo’s haunting, lulling voice enters. Those first few measures are enough to seduce listeners and make them helpless to do anything but focus on the music. The song continues lulling listeners in and slowly fades and it’s hardly noticeable when a new song begins.
“Dragging Hooks (River Song Trilogy, Part III)” introduces the grittier, more rough side of the Cowboy Junkies. A harmonica flails along with a scratchy guitar, with the bass hovering below. The verses of the song build and peak at the chorus, until the final chorus climaxes.
“Bread and Wine” may perhaps be the catchiest song on the album and it takes on a more distinct form than the first two pieces. It is somewhat reminiscent to songs off of Pale Sun, Crescent Moon—“First Recollection” springs to mind. “Bread and Wine” has an energetic poppy blues sound to it.
The music, combined with the lyrics, create a consummate work—one of the best I’ve heard all year. The lyrics sometimes depict little scenes. Other times they merely capture what it feels like to be living and “open” during the new millenium. Perhaps the most eloquently written song, which also depicts the overall meaning of the recording the most astutely, is “Thousand Year Prayer”. It opens with the line, “Here we all are at the end of the-century-of-beauty-lost” and continues, “We greedily ate what you gave us, the rest we tossed / We’ve trapped all your rivers, paved every pass / Pulled at your sky till we caused it to rip / But you’ve got Jimi Hendrix so let’s call it an even split.”
There’s not a insignificant song on it. Each song on this album is well-crafted and the mood and feel of each song shifts, maintaining attention through its entirety. The true beauty of it all lies in the multifaceted message it sends. This is certainly an album with a message. What that message is, isn’t easily construed. The only way to truly figure out the band’s message is to listen to Open, again, again, and again. Each time will reveal a new aspect to this incredibly open masterpiece.
// Notes from the Road
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