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April 11-18, 2007

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Cowboy Junkies

Straight outta Canada: These veterans of the Toronto alt-country scene, siblings descended from a prominent mining prospector, gained wide popularity in the United States after their cover of Velvet Underground's live version of 'Sweet Jane,' was featured in the film 'Natural Born Killers.'

It's a Family Affair

On the eve of their Santa Cruz appearance, the Cowboy Junkies examine the ties that bind.

By Paul Davis

It's been nearly two decades since the Cowboy Junkies invented an entire genre of stately and understated country-pop, and laid much of the groundwork for what would come to be known as alt-country with The Trinity Sessions.

That 1988 release (which included the band's seminal cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane") displayed a confident and assured band that seemed to have created a new strain of what was then called "college rock" out of whole cloth.

The band returned last fall to the Toronto church in which they recorded The Trinity Sessions over the course of a day to perform the album in its entirety with some of their most famous acolytes, including Ryan Adams and Natalie Merchant.

But while it might be tempting for a band to spend their 20th year merely flogging past successes in a bid to stave off the inevitable aging process, the Cowboy Junkies have simply noted the milestone and chosen to move on.

Rather than remain rooted in the past, the band has chosen to confront their age and issues of family and mortality directly on their new album, At the End of Paths Taken, which is slated to be released just a few days after their Santa Cruz appearance.

The creative trifecta of the Cowboy Junkies remains the three-sibling team of guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins, singer Margo Timmins and drummer Peter Timmins.

It seems appropriate, then, that as the band stares down its third decade, their newest songs examine the influence that one generation has on the next, and what it means to face the realities of mortality.

It's a topic that Michael finds himself keenly aware of. "The album is about generations dealing with each other," he explains. "I've got three young children and two aging parents, and I've gotten to the age where a lot of my friends' parents are passing away."

Still, Timmins avoids bringing the relationships among the siblings and band mates to the songwriting table on the new album, instead focusing on the generational line of influence. In fact, he views the subject matter to be rather distinct from the relationships he shares with his band mates.

"The songs aren't really about brothers and sister," he emphasizes. "It helps that I'm bringing these songs to my brother and sister--we're all similar ages and have the same parents--but these songs are really dealing specifically with the relationships of parents and their children."

As the band's primary songwriter, Michael penned all of the tracks on At the End of Paths Taken. But unlike the process behind previous releases, in which he presented the songs in their entirety to his vocalist sister Margo, with this album he shook up the process and provided lyrics prior to her hearing the entire song, to draw the significance and implications of those words in sharper relief.

"I gave her the lyrics without the melodies, so she could get to know the songs through the lyrics first," he explains. "Usually when doing a record you would give the singer the demo, but I just gave her the lyrics. The melodies can skew what the songs are about and I wanted her to spend time with the lyrics before she heard the melodies."

The result is a set of brutally observant material, a rumination on familial relationships and mortality augmented by sweeping string arrangements charted by the composer Henry Kucharzyk.

Those accustomed to the Cowboy Junkies' contemplative songbook might be jarred initially by the new songs, which manage to remain inward-looking while coming off a bit rougher around the edges than the band's previous material.

For his part, Timmins downplays the sonic and lyrical changes, and while they are doubtlessly subtle, the band's new songs cut just a bit closer and deeper than past works.

Perhaps nowhere is this candor more apparent than on the album-closing "My Only Guarantee," which takes a rather bleak perspective on the impact a parent has on a child.

Margo Timmins, with her breathy and allusive voice, intones, "my only guarantee--I will fuck you up."

It's not a comforting perspective, but it's an honest and fearless one that exemplifies the band's unsentimental glimpse into middle age.

The Cowboy Junkies perform at the Rio Theatre (1205 Soquel Ave.) on Saturday, April 14 at 8pm. Advance tickets are $30 and are available at Streetlight Records. For more information, call 831.423.8209.

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