Angel's wings

Margo Timmins stands on the edge of the Los Angeles Wiltern Theater stage, her arm draped over the microphone stand. She buries her head in her arm, looking like she can barely breathe, much less continue with the show. To her right, brother Michael, himself with eyes so sleepy he appears to be barely conscious, sits on a chair with his guitar in his lap. The two barely move, even when the music kicks in and starts to swell.

A Cowboy Junkies show always lingers in that middle ground separating dull from dreamy; you can't tell if you're being bored to sleep or lulled into a reverie, and it doesn't make much difference in the end. This is music that's intemperately quiet, turbulent but placid--a wind storm that doesn't kick up a single speck of dust. No one ever tells the Cowboys Junkies to keep it down.

For about 90 minutes, the Junkies whisper their brand of rock and roll in front of an L.A. crowd teetering between restless and riotous. "'Sweet Jane,'" comes the cry from one woman sitting in the audience, demanding the band perform its version of the Velvet Underground classic that launched the Junkies toward underground pop success. "'Sweet Jane!'"

Margo smiles to the woman: "We're gonna play it at the end. Don't worry."
During a break between songs, Margo tells the audience she is often asked by interviewers whether she is a "star." With a slight laugh, Timmins recounts a story about the time someone set her straight about her status in the music business.

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One day she was on her way to perform on The Tonight Show, and she was spread out in the back of a limousine all by herself. As Margo tells it, she asked the driver if she could use the car phone to make a call--"a local call," she stresses. The driver told her he would check, and he called the garage to make sure it was all right. "Is it a Cowboy Junkie?" the dispatcher asked the driver. "Yes," came the reply. "Then tell her no, she can't use the phone."

"When they let me use the phone," Timmins tells the amused crowd, "then I'll know I'm a star." And then the band launches into "A Common Disaster" off the new Lay it Down--ironically enough the very record that could turn the Junkies into the stars they should have become after the release of 1988's The Trinity Session. "Disaster," the sort of laconic and ambient country-rocker the Junkies can write and record in their sleep (and probably do), is getting played on modern-rock stations that have ignored the band for years; it joins Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" as the surprise hit on stations like the Edge (KDGE-FM), and it has landed at the No. 20 slot on Billboard's modern-rock charts--above the likes of the Cure and Paul Westerberg.

There's no reason "A Common Disaster" should get played on the radio now; it's not filled with mall-teen angst, it doesn't rock with plastic guitars, and it's smart--a love song that happily equates a relationship with a fiasco. Yet somehow, there it is on the radio, and there they are on a Starplex stage June 2 playing a free show with the likes of Deep Blue Something and Jars of Clay. War criminals deserve better.

The Junkies should have had their moment in 1988, when they crossed the border from Canada possessing a passport marked "The Trinity Session." That album, originally an indie release, later picked up by RCA Records, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime debuts (granted, it was a second album, but Whites Off Earth Now! didn't get U.S. distribution till Trinity was already a hit) that sounded like nothing before it. It pieced together the Velvet Underground and Patsy Cline: Margo droned on in a languid whisper, Michael filled in the spaces with a piercing guitar sound, Alan Anton pulsed out a quiet heartbeat bass rhythm, and Peter Timmins brushed his sticks against the drums until they sounded like a hiss.

The Cowboy Junkies of Trinity Session would go on to influence myriad successors--Gillian Welch gives the drone an Appalachian twang, and the Junkies should sue Mojave 3 for copyright violation--but they possessed their own unique sound. Trinity comes across solemn and exquisite, delicate and tough, a roots record recorded live-to-two-track in a church; and, ultimately, it couldn't decide if it wanted to be country or rock so it wound up being neither. The Hank Williams and Patsy Cline references were just there to throw you off, the Lou Reed homage was too obvious, and the miners' song was too precocious. But the whole package was just sublime enough to overcome its sad gloom ("Misguided Angel" says it all), and it wound up sounding like the devil asking an angel to slow dance.  

If Trinity Session was the beginning of a bright future, successive releases proved that stardom is a tenuous thrill. To a record-buying public seeking imitation instead of growth, it apparently didn't matter that such albums as Black Eyed Man in 1992 and Pale Sun Crescent Moon the following year dug deeper and stretched further; as Margo tried to "sing" with varying degrees of success, and Michael proved himself the deliberate, if often diffuse, storyteller, the records started selling worse and worse. Last year's live 200 More Miles--a double-disc best-of that the Junkies used to fulfill their contract with RCA--sold about 40,000 copies, an embarrassing amount for a band with major-label support.

But if there's any business in which quantity and quality run in opposite directions, it's the music business. Black Eyed Man, for which the band brought in numerous outside musicians to add dimension to the ethereal intimacy, was an overlooked exemplar: Featuring two Townes Van Zandt originals (including "Cowboy Junkies Lament," an uplifting downer about "a hole in heaven"), the record highlighted a band that no longer subsisted merely on mood. It told stories, created characters, took you places familiar and unseemly, added depth to what had previously been nothing more than a sound.

Michael wrote his stories about murders in trailer parks and Southern folks ("the great-grandsons of Gen. Robert E. Lee") plowing out mundane lives in the mud and muck of very ordinary existences, and Margo interpreted his words with a weary and compassionate sigh. "You'll never catch me complaining about too much Southern rain," Margo sang at the album's outset, and her expression could have either been one of resignation or contentment--either way, her character knew her fate had been forever sealed.

Michael and Margo have an intriguing relationship: He puts the words in her mouth, and in turn, she interprets his asseverations and stories as they hit her. She can turn a simple sentence into a mournful declaration, draw out a word until it sounds like a moan, whisper an exclamation until it reverberates like a bell.

"When I get a song where the lyrics are so vivid--and Michael writes like that--I envision the whole thing," she says. "I have a film in my head. I can see the woman sitting by the river, I can see where she lives, I can see John and what he looks like. So that's what goes into my head and how I approach it. I sing what I see.

"For me, as a singer, I think my style of singing--especially in the early days, when I didn't know what I was doing or think about it too much and just did it--has always just come from an emotional place. I've always just felt the song or the music or whatever and closed my eyes and did it. For me, that's my natural way of singing--to approach it from an emotional point of view. On a song where there is such a strong emotion, if I just close my eyes and don't think about it too much, it just comes out. It's when I start to think about it that I have trouble." She laughs. "I guess what I'm saying is I'm better off when I don't think."

Pale Sun Crescent Moon found Michael growing too prolix, especially when he started quoting William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But there were those amazing moments of prosaic clarity that revealed he had become the sort of storyteller Bruce Springsteen used to be before fame and wealth dulled his small-town convictions.

The finely detailed "Floorboard Blues"--a tale of a woman who must decide between riding with a dangerous man into the big city or walking alone back toward small-town loneliness--was the genuine article, as profound and palpable as anything on Springsteen's Nebraska: "I don't like the way his pinkie ring picks up the dashboard light," Margo sings, "or his short little piggy fingers or the way his belt is cinched too tight...I don't care how many more miles I got, I think I'd rather walk them alone than to sit in the back seat as his eyes in the mirror reduce me to flesh and bone."

Still, there was no reason to think the Junkies could come up with another record that equalled Trinity Session's ambience and effect--anything too close to it would seem cynical, and anything too far would seem calculated. Yet Lay it Down is the proper, deliberate step in evolution that draws the line between Trinity Session and Pale Sun Crescent Moon. It doesn't take Margo an hour to finish a three-minute song--White Off Earth Now! renders Bruce Springsteen and Robert Johnson in slow motion--and the music now serves the ambience instead of the other way around.  

"Lay it Down is the end of our first phase and our first era, and this is the beginning of a second phase or second era for Cowboy Junkies," Margo says. "This album is a culmination of all the things that we've learned as individual musicians, as a band, and also as people being able to handle the industry."

The album scales back on the narratives and lets Michael stretch as a guitarist; he might sit off to the side of the stage in concert, obscured by shadows and long bangs, but his guitar playing is once more as integral to the band's sound as his sister's vocals. And if it seems Margo has returned to her murmuring-as-singing style, it's only because the songs are more ambiguous this time out. To quote one of the album's most effective moments, she's "speaking confidentially...speaking kind of cryptically"--so much so that her voice is often buried underneath violins and feedback.

"Songs like 'Something More Besides You' or 'Lonely Sinking Feeling' [off Lay it Down] are songs that come straight from the heart as far as emotion," Margo says. "Those are the ones where I have to go with emotion and feeling, and they tend to be more personal. I have to open myself a little bit more, and on those songs, it's the emotion that counts.

"But there's a song like 'Speaking Confidentially,' where I have no idea what it's about." She laughs. "I keep asking Mike, and he won't tell me. Maybe I will figure it out one day when I'm on the road, which sometimes happens. I'll be singing it and all of a sudden it clicks: 'OK, now I know what it means.' When I don't understand the songs, usually I tend to focus in on the melody or the words themselves and play with the phrasing of them--just the rhythm of the words.

"I tend to look at it like I was reading a poem and playing with the words, but it's more than a poem because I also have the music as well. Those are sort of fun, but they're usually the hardest. I'm sort of in the dark. I don't know what I'm talking about, which is always a difficult thing."

Cowboy Junkies perform June 2 at Starplex with Jars of Clay, Jewel, Dada, and Deep Blue Something. The show is free, but tickets are required.

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