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Truth be told, Cowboy Junkies have never done much for me. It’s not like I harbor a grudge against the Timmins clan. Margo Timmins has great pipes, and I have great admiration for the painstaking recording process they utilized on 1988’s The Trinity Session. I guess it’s just that I’ve always just found something I wanted to hear more than or instead of the Cowboy Junkies; to me, they are like a conventionally attractive woman in a room full of supermodels and circus freaks.
And now Renmin Park is making me look like a fool.
A little background: Renmin Park (get it June 15th from the band’s own Latent Recordings label) is the first of four new releases the band will drop in the next eighteen months, known collectively as The Nomad Series, and was inspired by guitarist Micheal Timmins’ three month stay in China with his family in 2008. Timmins strategically introduces homemade field recordings to the band’s signature sound, creating an aural landscape that feels equal parts Mitchell Froom and Alan Lomax. Against this backdrop is set a loose song cycle chronicling the lives of a star-crossed young couple in the Chinese town of Jingjiang. Nothing earth shattering, but setting this familiar tale in an exotic and largely misunderstood culture gives the record surprising emotional depth. Longtime fans will find plenty of familiar terrain (Margo Timmins’ husky vocal delivery, tasteful arrangements and impeccable performances) and I suspect that lead single, Stranger Here, will be the unofficial soundtrack to countless weekend adventures this summer, but Renmin Park also benefits greatly from the inclusion of two cover songs by Chinese artists, I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side by Zuoxiao Zuzhou (of ZXZZ) and My Fall by Xu Wei.
The ultimate triumph of Renmin Park is Michael Timmins’ ability to create a cohesive record that feels simultaneously common and extraordinary. Subsequently, the album’s ballads are the real stars. The title track, a universal meditation on discontent, establishes the sustained somberness of the record that is only momentarily overcome by songs like Stranger Here. A Few Bags Of Grain packs so much pathos that it is easy to miss the scathing critique of China’s gender politics, but Zuzhou’s I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side is the number I return to time and again. This harrowing and hypnotic song perfectly encapsulates the paranoia and oppression left in the wake of China’s Cultural Revolution and the June Fourth Incident, and suggests that Zuzhou may have a couple Leonard Cohen records in his collection. It’s also proof-positive that a great song is a great song, regardless of the language. Trust me, you’re going to see Renmin Park on more than a few critics’ Best of 2010 lists.
Renmin Park will be followed by Demons, an entire record devoted to the songs of the band’s late friend, Vic Chesnutt. The final two installments of The Nomad Series are Sing in My Meadow (theme TBD) and The Wilderness, a full album of new Cowboy Junkie originals, many of which are already making their way into the band’s live repertoire. There are also plans for a lushly illustrated book that will delve into the character, nature, and inspiration behind each of the albums. Finally, the band’s website has been complete redesigned to serve as a portal into the creative process of The Nomad Series, and will feature demos, rough mixes and outtakes from the project as it progresses. Pretty damn cool if you ask me. Nothing like eating crow courtesy of Cowboy Junkies.