200 More Miles, and Gentle Creatures

Sam Hurwitt reviews Cowboy Junkies' "200 More Miles" amd Tarnation's "Gentle Creatures".

Topics: Music,

You’re driving through the moonlit desert, under the influence of
a woman on the radio singing in a sweet, somnolent murmur. The band’s
playing a country blues so slow you reckon they’re being paid by the
hour. There’s something hypnotic about the slow throom of the bass and
the chanteuse’s warbling that’s liable to run you off the road if you
aren’t careful.
A band so mellow they’re practically inert, the Cowboy Junkies
may be an acquired taste — and a threat to highway safety — but they
can easily become addictive. The Junkies’ languid, bluesy country
stylings have earned them many fans who normally eschew twang. Margo
Timmins’ silky, haunting vocals breathe life into her brother Michael’s
offbeat, poetic lyrics; it’s hard to listen to a song like “Misguided
Angel” or their version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”
without getting chills.
As lovely as the Junkies are, I’ve never been tempted to see them
in concert. Rightly or wrongly, I picture them as particularly euphonious
shoegazers — sweet medicine for the ear, but not much to look at. So I
picked up their newest release, “200 More Miles” — a 2-CD
collection of live performances spanning the band’s decade-long history
– with a degree of detached anticipation. Concert albums tend to fall
into two categories: either they sound lousy, in which case you had to be
there to appreciate them, or they sound terrific, in which case you
really had to be there.
“200 More Miles” definitely rests on the more pleasant end of the
scale. Few of the songs, though, are substantially different from the
preexisting studio versions. There are some beautiful renditions of “If
You Were the Woman and I Was the Man” (a duet with John Prine) and the
almost upbeat post-love song “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning,” but
we’ve more or less heard them before. There are some long solos and
messing around on “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” and “Walking
After Midnight,” which, for that reason, end their respective disks. Only
two songs, both covers, are foreign to the band’s previous five albums.
Containing many of the Cowboy Junkies’ more popular songs, “200
More Miles” is designed to appease the fans and to lead intrepid
neophytes to the band’s other platters. Hopefully it will succeed in that
goal: this may be a fairly representative sampling of the Junkies’ oeuvre,
but it’s not their best work.
Those who crave more narcotic country tuneage may look to San
Francisco’s Tarnation, which manages to be at once darker and more
traditional than the Junkies. There’s a throbbing threnodial
drone reminiscent of Nick Cave infesting their album, “Gentle Creatures,”
but otherwise it echoes the hoary honky-tonk hits of 1961. (Think
Patsy Cline on smack.) Songs like “Two Wrongs Won’t Make Things Right”
sound like they could have been on the juke at a soda fountain three
decades ago.
The music’s rootsy quality is accentuated by singer/songwriter
Paula Frazer’s voice, laced with a pronounced Georgia twang. Her wails
and ululations lend an eerie resonance to her world-weary love songs,
evoking a world both dingy and lush. On the first track, “Game of Broken
Hearts,” Frazer’s voice rings out with a tinny echo, as if she’s singing
in an empty high school ballroom once the prom-goers have fled.
A palpable melancholic mood pervades “Gentle Creatures,” one that
seems a bit homogeneous as the disk spins on. Perhaps anticipating this,
the band packed most of its stylistic aberrations in the last half of the
album, including the surf dirge “The Hand” and “It’s Not Easy,” sung by
steel guitar player Matt Sullivan, which almost sounds like a Monkees
ballad. I’d recommend a bit of Tarnation as just the thing for a lazy
Sunday evening, but for best results I’d prescribe taking it in small doses.

Sam Hurwitt is a regular contributor to Salon.

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