Tuesday, April 1, 2014

ruminations: cowboy junkies- 'the trinity session'

One of the great curiosities to me out of all of the music I listen to are those albums that I come back to again and again after lengthy breaks. Last week on a night when I was scanning my ipod for something to suit my solitary, wistful, reflective kind of mood I landed on ‘The Trinity Session’ by the Cowboy Junkies, which I hadn’t listened to probably since 2010. Since that was such a difficult year I’ve come to realize that I ended up purging most of the music I was listening to back then from my awareness. I always thought that that whole ‘bad associations’ talk was just bullshit. Great music is great music regardless of your associations with it, but then that crap-storm of a year steam-rolled me and I found that I was only able to hold on to a few albums by simple virtue that I never stopped listening to them so the bad memories never stuck to them. ‘The Trinity Session’ is one where they stuck.

I was introduced to this album the way everyone was, through the Cowboy Junkies’ cover version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sweet Jane.’ My girlfriend in high school and I used to argue that whole cover version vs. original point because of that song. She was always on the ‘I like it better because it’s the first one I heard’ side. ‘I like it,’ I’d said, because I did, ‘but it’s impossible for it to be better than the original. Nothing can top the original! Plus, she changed all of the lyrics—what the hell is up with that?!’ I’d never listened to it closely enough to realize that husky-voiced singer Margo Timmins had used the lyrics from the ‘Live With Lou Reed’ version, which, in fact, are better than the lyrics on the ‘Loaded’ version. The band also took that stripped-down, half-asleep feel from the live version as well. What’s most interesting about this cover is that due to the fact that it’s a cover version of an alternate version of a classic song it’s completely faithful to its source material while sounding completely different from the version most people are familiar with. So it kind of puts that whole respect-the-original vs. make-it-your-own argument to bed. Regardless I bought a live album by the band on cassette that I’ve long since forgotten as I’ve never seen it anywhere and certainly don’t have it anymore. I listened to it a few times, was annoyed by how many other cover versions were on it (I claimed to loathe Bruce Springsteen around then—kind of stupid as now I really wish I could hear that live version of ‘Nebraska’ Suicide-nod ‘State Trooper’) and lost track of it by the time I left for college.

In 2008 or 2009 Stefanie and I used to housesit for two poster-artist friends in Evanston—they had a greyhound named Seth and two cats named Ocho and Akiko. We used to housesit for them several times a year and one thing I used to do while I was there was look through their CD shelves for music I hadn’t heard and that’s where I finally found ‘The Trinity Session.’ I ripped the audio, loaded it onto my ipod and one of those mornings when I was riding the Purple line to work ‘Blue Moon Revisited’ came on while passing over Calvary Cemetary into Howard when we stopped before pulling into the station and I watched the sun rise while it played and that’s one of those rare moments where I remember the exact moment that an album first got its hooks into me. The route between Belmont and Evanston was one I made a lot while I was at Columbia, too. Since it runs over three different beautiful cemeteries it would always lend a lot of weight to whatever music I was soundtracking my angsty existential thoughts to that day and this album was transporting me back to those days. As depressed as I was at Columbia I really loved riding the train all the way up to Evanston, which I find more than a little ironic now.

‘The Trinity Session’ was recorded in a church in Toronto using a single mic (an ambisonic mic to be exact) giving it a contradictory sound—the instruments seem distant and dripping with the wet ambience of the church and simultaneously unadorned, raw and very intimate. There’s an immediacy mixed with the electricity of a captured moment, but the album’s so rich in tone and imagery that it takes dozens of listens to soak everything in that’s going on. It has a surface starkness that’s incredibly deceptive. There are hints of jazz, blues, folk and country but it sounds unmistakably timeless and distinctive. It’s an album that if you close your eyes while listening to it you are inside that church with the band set up around you, Margo singing softly in your ear.

The songs are incredibly restrained, but emotionally vivid—there’s some startling loneliness in guitarist Michael Timmins’ reading of an iconic melody on ‘Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)’ that is only intensified by the extra notes and passages that he adds. Extra notes and all it’s surrounded by yawning gaps of empty space. A similar effect occurs on ‘Dreaming my Dreams with you’—which is built over a meaty bassline dense with room reverb (you can even hear the bass causing the snare to rattle a bit during the intro if you’re listening on headphones). Other than the base elements of drums, bass and guitar (which are so locked-in that it’s easy to hear them as different parts of the same instrument) harmonica, accordion and the occasional stringed instrument drift in and out of the mix. America has Mazzy Star, which is the perfect music for driving while stoned through an endless desert with the windows down, England has the Sundays who take pastoral imagery, bright, shimmering tones and pair them with sad lyrics and then Canada has Cowboy Junkies representing a wintery desolation that doesn’t quite translate down here in America. One thing I forgot to mention—this magical commute where I first fell in love with the Cowboy Junkies was during the winter.

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