Spunky Junkies

Michael Timmins readily acknowledges the irony surrounding the biggest hit to date by the Cowboy Junkies, the Canadian group for which he serves as guitarist and songwriter. Said hit -- a mournful cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" -- came in 1994, a full six years after it was released on the Junkies' breakthrough second album The Trinity Session. Master of bombast Oliver Stone included the cut on the soundtrack of his 1994 splatterfest Natural Born Killers. As "Sweet Jane" was riding up Billboard's modern rock chart, however, eventually settling in the Top 10, the Junkies were negotiating to wrangle out of their contract with RCA. After doing five albums for the label (not including the 1986 indie release Whites Off Earth Now!!), the band landed a hit single at last, just as the RCA door was hitting them on their way out.

You'd think the timing could not have been worse, but Timmins disagrees. "We figured it was time to get off RCA, that our time was sort of up there," he says by phone from a tour stop in Park City, Utah, just outside of Salt Lake City. "We felt like they were putting us on the back burner, and we felt we were still relevant enough to get some attention and we weren't getting it from them. We didn't think they did a particularly great job of promoting Pale Sun Crescent Moon [from 1993], which we thought was a leap away from what we were doing. It was accessible and a part of our evolution. There was something there they could work with -- they couldn't fall back on the 'Well, we don't know what to do with this, it's too weird.' That's why we left."

The Junkies weren't without a label for long. After compiling a contract-closing live double album last year for RCA (200 More Miles), the band signed a deal with Geffen Records through A&R rep Jim Powers, the guy who signed the group to RCA in '88. The Junkies' first Geffen disc Lay It Down, produced by John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls), finds them taking measured but bold steps away from the somnambulistic sound introduced on their first two albums. On both, vocalist Margo Timmins A Michael's younger sister A crooned at a creepy-crawl pace, barely audible over the country-blues dirges of guitarist Timmins, brother Peter Timmins on drums, bassist Alan Anton, and a revolving cast of guest musicians. They stuck mostly to covers: honky-tonk standards by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, and the blues staples of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin' Hopkins, as well as rock stuff by Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed. The sound was oddly familiar but decidedly new A a fusion of hypnotic drone-guitar blues and solemn pre-World War II country that was sometimes masterful and evocative, other times leaden and dull.

If only by their own slow-burn standards, the Junkies' Lay It Down is a raging inferno, brighter even than the tougher, more forthright sound of Pale Sun and 1992's Black Eyed Man. "A Common Disaster" and "Come Calling (His Song)" are swaggering rockers, with powerfully tense vocals by Margo and big chunks of fuzzy guitar A by far the loudest stuff Timmins has committed to tape. "It was a conscious decision," he notes of Lay It Down's hard edge and his guitar work, which puts a subtle spin on the fuzzball verities of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. "We wanted to concentrate on the four band members again and not invite as many outside musicians into the picture. By doing so that placed more weight on my shoulders as far as solo sections were concerned, because it was just guitar, bass, and drums. And I just wanted to start playing a bit more. That came from when we were touring behind Pale Sun. We had a section of the show where we broke it down to just the four of us [the group often enlists supplementary musicians for tours] and I was playing more guitar. I enjoyed it, so I thought I'd play more on the next record."

Like the Junkies' sound, Timmins's songwriting has also evolved on Lay It Down. Always an evocative and literate writer, Timmins at his best can define the moods and emotions of real people and capture the detail and nuance of real life. (Check out the break-up lament "Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning," from the otherwise disappointing 1990 effort The Caution Horses.) His writerly aspirations, however, have sometimes undermined the power of his words: On Pale Sun he quotes both William Faulkner ("First Recollection") and Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("Seven Years"), and his penchant for setting tales amid the blue-collar backdrop of rural America has resulted in pretentious sagas such as "Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park" and "Oregon Hill" (both from Black Eyed Man).

Characters still dot the landscape of Timmins's work on Lay It Down A the pining lovers in the his and her versions of "Come Calling," the death-fearing protagonist in "Just Want to See," the death-desiring wife in "Bea's Song (River Song Trilogy: part II)." These days, though, Timmins is interested more in exploring his characters' minds than in guiding them through some of life's hardships. "I tried with Lay It Down not to concentrate so much on storytelling," he explains. "There are some storytelling songs there, but I wanted there to be more internal dialogues as opposed to setting a scene and setting up characters and bringing them through a narrative situation. I wanted to have characters but involve the inner turmoil of those characters as opposed to any sort of outside activity."

Although Margo occasionally has shared songwriting credits with her brother A on the early standout "Misguided Angel" and the new "Musical Key" A Michael has done most of the writing. Timmins states that the interpretation of the lyrics, however, is up to his sister: "There is a collaboration in a sense in that once I write the song and give it over to her, she then has to interpret it to fit her own personality and her own reading of the song, and she also has to find a way into it so she can properly express its emotions. So there is a collaborative process in just taking the song off the page and bringing it to life. And it's becoming a lot easier for us as we go on, because as she understands my songwriting, she becomes a more confident singer, so there's more she can do with the individual songs."

Margo's vocals on Lay It Down are certainly her most assured and forceful yet. Where once she mumbled through songs like a shy and tortured waif, now she purrs almost playfully through "A Common Disaster," "Angel Mine," and "Something More Besides You." Even her lava-lamp phrasing on "Hold On to Me" and the title cut flows with more power.

"Margo has a style," Timmins says, defending his sister's oft-criticized vocals. "It's a very distinctive style and a way of singing that she's developed that's unique. Once you hear Margo you know it's Margo, and that can't be said for too many singers. But at the same time, when you have a sound that's so individualistic, you're going to have some people who don't like it. And if you dislike it, you're really going to dislike it. That's fair enough. We don't expect everyone to like what we do or for everybody to like the way Margo sings. You just learn to deal with the criticism and let it roll off your back."

Still, Timmins bristles slightly when talk rolls around to the Junkies' inability thus far to repeat the success of The Trinity Session. "We were very lucky with that record," he admits. "A lot of fates conspired to make it a bigger record than probably our sound should have allowed. To us, though, that's a part of this whole business: It's a lot of hard work and every now and then catching a break. Certainly we haven't had a bigger-selling record than Trinity, but our records have all sold well and our shows continue to sell well. There will always be an audience out there for what we do. If Lay It Down isn't as big as Trinity, that doesn't concern us that much. We're still making a pretty good living doing what we enjoy.

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