A New Song and Dance for the Cowboy Junkies : Music: The group’s ‘Pale Sun, Crescent Moon’ takes a more aggressive approach than the albums that gave the band its signature hushed sound.
When they toured in 1989, riding the success of their breakthrough album, “The Trinity Session,” Cowboy Junkies were hawking souvenir T-shirts that would have warmed a librarian’s heart.
“Shhhhh,” read the T-shirt slogan, which couldn’t have been more appropriate to the Toronto rock band’s internalized, ruminative take on its country, folk and blues influences.
Five years later, though, the band is announcing itself with a clannng --which is more or less the sound of the thick power chords that open its latest album, “Pale Sun, Crescent Moon.”
By the album’s end, Margo Timmins, the singer known for her preternatural hush, can be heard declaring herself with assertive bite:
It’s a (expletive) ole world, but this ole girl, well she ain’t giving in.
While it hasn’t exactly turned into a hard-rock band (the closely-drawn, highly literate, mood-conscious internal monologue remains the signature of the band’s style), those aggressive opening and closing moments do signal a desire to avoid being typecast as that whispering band that found success by recording in an echoing church.
“With this album, we definitely wanted to bring up the volume a bit,” says guitarist Michael Timmins, Margo’s older brother and, as songwriter and producer, the leading architect of the band’s sound. “We’ve been moving away from the ‘Trinity Session’ feel for a while. With every record, we’ve tried to add a different element. The idea of a power chord opening (for the new album) was a conscious thought.”
Michael said his sister has had a tougher time singing some of his more demanding compositions.
“The ones she has the easiest time on are the straight love songs,” he says. “Temperament wise, she’s very mild and mellow, and she’d prefer to sing ballads. If somebody would let her, she’d sing ballads all the time.”
Instead, Michael has presented Margo with songs like “Hunted” and “Floorboard Blues,” the concluding tracks that give the current album an eerie twist. Most of the songs on “Pale Sun, Crescent Moon” are evocative snapshots of relationships in jeopardy. But the characters in the two final songs are women who fear they are being stalked by rapists.
“Margo has to stretch herself a bit,” he points out. “Usually, she ends up giving the most interesting performances (on) the ones she has to work hardest on to find the character--to find her way into the song.”
The creative process can get testy for rock bands--like the Who and the Band in their heyday--that have one member writing the songs and another singing them.
Michael notes that some assume working relationships would be even more explosive within Cowboy Junkies, where sibling rivalries are added to the usual tinder that sets off internal flare-ups (besides Michael, 35, and Margo, 33, the core lineup includes younger brother Peter Timmins, 28, on drums, and bassist Alan Anton).
But so far, he notes, the band has enjoyed a relatively unruffled nine-year existence.
“We haven’t been at it as long as the Who and the Band were,” he says. “But I think in our case, the brother and sister relationship makes it less (tense) because we understand each other very well. Our personalities don’t seem to conflict. We all have our roles and like what we do, and give each other enough space.”
* Cowboy Junkies and Freedy Johnston play Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. All but the Sunday late show are sold out. $25. (714) 496-8930.