More Cowboy, Less Junkie : *** COWBOY JUNKIES; "Black Eyed Man", RCA

The Junkies themselves seem to understand that they'll never be able to match 1988's near-perfect major-league debut "The Trinity Session," a highly distinctive, casually realized blend of sweet and haunting, of country innocence and city smarts. But understanding wasn't enough on 1990's "The Caution Horses," which found the band unclear as to where to go next.

"Black Eyed Man" is back on the right track. Like "The Caution Horses," this album's relatively stepped-up pace distances the band from the dreamy, late-night feel of "Trinity." It's a mixed blessing in that it gains oomph while sacrificing hypnotic lure. Following suit, Margo Timmins' singing has gained confidence and clarity, but only by giving up its hushed seductiveness. And Michael Timmins' songwriting has gained focus and direction, but lost some measure of mystique--more cowboy, less junkie.

Still, the writing effectively twists the Canadian obsession with nostalgic Americana by placing the tales of the rooted but restless firmly in the present. A duet with John Prine and two Townes Van Zandt songs add literate folkie authenticity.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).

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