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Cowboy Junkies
Miles from Our Home
(Geffen)

The seventh record by Canadian mood-music purveyors Cowboy Junkies trades folk-rock simplicity for a West Coast sound that evokes California's particular brand of sun-drenched angst and broken souls. From the Doors-like spell of "Blue Guitar" (co-written with the late Townes Van Zandt) to the simmering Plimsouls feel of "New Dawn Coming" and "The Summer of Discontent" to the percolating Motels-style sheen of the title track, the band summons the blooming, burnished, and jaded feel of Los Angeles without really trying. This is especially intriguing considering the album was recorded in their home country with producer John Leckie, most recently known for his work with British bands Radiohead, the Verve, Kula Shaker, and the Stone Roses.

Miles from Our Home feels like a travelogue through sacred ground, an overnight drive made while singing songs to stay awake or to ease the pain of all that was left behind. Vocalist Margo Timmins woos the listener as always, taking her time with each line as she peels the emotional layers away or shakes them loose with her trademark vibrato. The band moves and drones behind her like a ghost, an aura around her that's as steady and deep as the hum of the highway, spinning out the soundtrack to Michael Timmins's earthy prose as they glide along. "Lie with me upon the earth/Feel its curve beneath our spines" Margo sings on the shimmering piano tune "Darkling Days," pondering redemption and a lover's dissent. As she presents the idea that "beautiful is not chosen," she also asserts that beauty can be discovered in a kindred lost soul and willfully found in others by choice.

In the gorgeous "Those Final Feet," grace is pursued through a landscape of organ-soaked melody and waterfall piano lines. "You said never to grow old/But you forgot to tell me how/You said never to grow old/And sink your teeth into those final feet," she sings, questioning how to embrace the end, whenever it comes. Methodically stripping away denial, she contends there's "no sense wasting the time you've got/You've gotta walk down every road/No sense pretending you're what you're not/When you've gotta shoulder every load," reveling in the peace that comes with each step toward acceptance of life's ultimate fate.

Death is more unsettling in the album's closer, an eerie hidden track. "Honey, I saw your daddy, lying by the roadside/His feet sticking out of a sack," Timmins laments. "Honey, they'll be calling to tell you/That your daddy never will be coming back." The lines "Again at the end of the rainbow/Again no words to be found/Just a voice sad and alone/Me wishing I was home/In the silence along the telephone line" provide a chilling end to this road trip and the record, as Timmins's voice trails off into a guitar buzzing like a receiver left off the hook. Whether the climactic call is set in a Sunset Strip phone booth or a snowy Toronto alley, this fresh, disturbing tune makes a strong case for further exploration of the new sound the Junkies have discovered.

-- Robin Myrick

Elliott Smith
XO
(DreamWorks)

It's almost common sense to expect that an artist like Elliott Smith would blow his major-label debut. Brooding and bleak, the Portland native seems almost too fragile for the big leagues. His most recent indie album, 1997's Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars), was an uncommonly tough take on the singer-songwriter tradition. As if he knew that his material was among the strongest that had come down that particular pike in almost a decade, Smith delivered it with an extremely soft touch, spotlighting the for-the-ages sturdiness of the songs with hushed delicacy.

When "Miss Misery," a written-to-order for Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting soundtrack, was nominated for a 1997 Best Original Song Academy Award, Either/Or, Smith's third solo album, had sold only 15,000 copies. DreamWorks label exec Lenny Waronker was a long-time fan; he signed the then 28-year-old, Portland-based Smith just in time for the explosion in interest spurred by the Oscar nomination. But the sight of the deeply sensitive, admittedly stage-fright-prone Smith performing "Miss Misery" as part of the glitzy awards show last March didn't bode well for his career as a major rock star.

Surprise: Smith's going to take his place in the rock pantheon sooner than later. XO is every bit as deep, poetic, and melodically undeniable as the exquisite Either/Or, yet at the same time not as raw and demanding. He knew how to take advantage of the high-budget studio setting without letting it muck up his near-perfect material. The arrangements on XO start from the man-with-guitar sparseness of the intro to the first track, "Sweet Adeline" -- in which the sounds of Smith's fingers on the fretboard can clearly be heard -- and build to encompass a full band before pulling back for the intricate a cappella harmonies of the album's finale "I Didn't Understand." Whether the instrumentation stays with acoustic guitar ("Tomorrow, Tomorrow") or delicately adds barroom piano (on "Baby Britain" and the lovely waltz-time title track) or vocal harmonies, each and every song comes across unadorned, as if true to its own original, elemental vision.

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