O, Canada!

Cowboy Junkies, k.d. lang, and Kathleen Edwards are not hockey pucks
By MIKAEL WOOD  |  February 19, 2008

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SPACED OUT AND SLOWED DOWN: Cowboy Junkies’ signature sound is still one of the sexiest in alt-country.

Provided you get your music news from newspapers or magazines or Web sites — really, from anywhere but the mouth of someone who lives there — you’d be forgiven for assuming that nothing’s been going on in Canada for the last few years beyond the interconnected shenanigans of that country’s indie-rock elite. Arcade Fire, Feist, the Dears — they’ve all done an excellent job of soaking up whatever attention the rest of the world has deemed appropriate to lavish on the Great White North. But they’re not the end of the story, as witness a handful of new albums by rootsy Canadian artists who — believe it or not — don’t spend their nights and weekends playing in Broken Social Scene.

That said, a couple of moonlighters do show up on Trinity Revisited (Latent/Warner Music Canada), a handsome CD-DVD package from Cowboy Junkies, one of Canada’s longest-running rock acts. The Junkies’ longevity is actually the point of Trinity Revisited: it celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Ontario outfit’s 1988 breakthrough, The Trinity Session, which they recorded around a single microphone inside downtown Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity.

To make Revisited, the Junkies regathered at Holy Trinity along with a film crew and some high-profile friends — Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams, and Vic Chesnutt — and recorded themselves playing the album’s material (this time with more than one microphone). The idea, as they explain in a brief documentary included on the DVD, was to see what’s happened to the music over the past two decades.

The answer? Not a whole heck of a lot. The Junkies rose to alt-rock renown by doing pretty much what their band name implied: slowing down and spacing out country music till it resembled the sound a roadhouse jukebox might emit if it were coming down from a heroin high. (This penchant for straight-shooting descriptions — pardon the pun — caught on among the group’s latter-day successors; see also Codeine and Low.) And though they’ve become more sophisticated songwriters — about half of TheTrinity Session consists of covers, among them Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground — the Junkies haven’t wavered from that mission since the late ’80s.

Which means Revisited is less a revelation of new depths than a confirmation of old values — no big deal, since the Junkies’ signature sound is still one of the sexiest in alt-country. As far as the guests go, Adams makes himself the most comfortable inside the material; it’s a kick watching him negotiate arrangements with Michael Timmins, the band’s guitarist and one of its three Timminses, alongside singer Margo and drummer Peter. Adams isn’t necessarily known for the lusciousness of his records, but under the Junkies’ heavy-lidded sway, he sounds right at home.

k.d. lang, on the other hand, is absolutely known for the lusciousness of her records — she’s Canada’s premier roots-music sensualist, responsible for an expansive body of work that established itself with high-spirited trad country and moved on to encompass jazz, soul, Latin pop, and Tin Pan Alley, all of it swirling like flavors in a sundae. In her 20-year-plus recording career, she’s worked with a bevy of high-profile producers including Owen Bradley, Craig Street, and David Kahne, yet Watershed (Nonesuch) is her first entirely self-produced effort — and it’s no less lovely (or complex) than its predecessors.

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