Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboy Junkies - "The Trinity Session" (LP Review)

I was recently extolling the virtues of this LP to Herbert, and I've given/recommended it as a gift several times before so I decided I should go ahead and review it. Simply put, the Cowboy Junkies 1988 sophomore LP, "The Trinity Session", is one of the best LPs of all time. The story of the actual recording session is now legendary: on a shoestring budget, the group rented the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto (they're Canadian) for one day and recorded the entire LP live with one mic (ok, technically they forgot to record the a capella "Mining for Gold" during the weekend and recorded it a few days later in the church during the lunch break of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's recording session). The warm acoustics of the church, the intimate, spare production, the lonely, hazy songs -- it all combines to transport you to the session itself, like you helped the band move their gear and watched and listened to the LP unfold.

But what is less well-known but more interesting to me is that this LP is a love letter to & reinterpretation of country music. On the band's website they have extensive notes about their experiences touring the American South in support of their previous LP and being introduced to country music:
[W]e had spent a lot of time in the Southern States, especially Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas. ... Those were the days when having to spend a night in a hotel room would mean the difference between eating the next day or paying for the gas to get us to the next town, so we spent a lot of our time sleeping on the floors of friendly promoters, fans, waitresses and bartenders. One of the best part about being "billeted" was that each night we were exposed to a new record collection and each night we'd discover a new album or a new band or a whole new type of music that was springing up in some buried underground scene somewhere in America. ... A style of music that we were heavily exposed to at that time was country music. It wasn't like everyone we ran into was a country music freak, but growing up in the South, most people had been exposed to a lot more of it than we had growing up in suburban Montreal. There would inevitably be in every collection one or two great country music records that had been lifted from their parents as they moved out. Sitting there between the latest Death Piggy single and Coltrane's Giant Steps would be something like Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes, or Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits, The Louvin Brothers, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and the list goes on. We drank it up.
Sometimes you don't really understand something that you take for granted until it is processed and presented to you by someone from another culture or background (cf. my discussion of Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"). In doing so, the Junkies helped revitalize/define the genre of alt country, infused from their lo-fi, hazy, barroom blues sound from their first LP, "Whites Off Earth Now!!" (see also: "Me and the Devil Blues").

On this LP, the CJs don't simply cover country songs, but reinterpret them, and let the attitude infuse their other songs as well. For example, they do a slow, aching version of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" that I think Hank Williams would approve of. Ditto a six minute blues jam version of Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight". They also strip down "Dreaming My Dreams With You" by Waylon Jennings, and do a surprisingly upbeat version (for them) of the traditional song "Working On a Building".

They go beyond straight covers with their version of "Blue Moon", mixing an original song with the Rodgers & Hart standard to yield "Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)". The result is genius; acknowledging the presence of Elvis without overshadowing the rest of the collection.

Despite my high praise for the above songs, the star of the show is without question their rolling, relaxed cover of The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane". One doesn't normally associate the Velvets with, say, Patsy Cline or Hank Williams, but the CJs figured out how to make it work. Lou Reed himself has said that the Cowboy Junkies version of "Sweet Jane" is "the best and most authentic version I have ever heard" -- you're not going to find higher praise than that.

Although I've spoken mostly of their covers, the LP features a handful of originals like "Misguided Angel" (a disturbingly beautiful song about an abusive relationship) and "200 More Miles" (a road song that appropriately namechecks Willie Nelson) that are excellent songs worthy of their placement in the LP. There are a few of missteps on the LP, for example Jeff Bird's harmonica on "I Don't Get It" and "Postcard Blues" is a little too shrill for my tastes, but these flaws are easily forgiven.

Conventional wisdom on the Cowboy Junkies is that "The Trinity Session" was their creative high point. I have most of their other LPs and I would agree that this is their best (though the others are quite good), but whereas many other critics blame them from not deviating from the formula they introduced on this LP, I think their fortunes waned when their sound became more polished and mainstream. I don't normally wish for bands to miss out on financial and critical success, but I kind of wish that it had avoided the CJs for a while longer and they could have made a few more LPs like this.

Standout Songs: "Mining for Gold", "Misguided Angel", "Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)", "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", "200 More Miles", "Sweet Jane", "Walkin' After Midnight". (The entire LP at

Skip 'em Songs: n/a

Final Score: 10/10. Perfection.

Bonus Links:

Elvis Presley - "Blue Moon"
The Velvet Underground - "Sweet Jane"
Patsy Cline - "Walking After Midnight"
Waylon Jennings - "Dreaming My Dreams With You"
Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys - "Working on a Building"
Hank Williams - "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"

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