KETE BOWERS – Paper Ships (Current Records)

Paper ShipsI first encountered the now Essex-based Liverpudlian singer-songwriter with the release of his single, ‘Northern Town’ and ‘A Town With No Cheer’, two spare tales of the region’s industrial decline and its effect on those that live there. They both now appear on Paper Ships, his second album (only available in physical form via his website), produced by and featuring Michael Timmins alongside his Cowboy Junkies drummer brother Peter and released on his label after the original funding fell through.

Again, it’s very much rooted in themes of loss, depression and despair on both a community and individual level, Bowers’ deep, dark vocal style and intimate delivery calling to mind Cohen, Van Zandt and Guy Clarke, blostered by instrumentation tnat embraces pump organ, pedal steel, accordion and Dobro

It opens with the first of the single tracks to be followed by the slightly more uptempo, melodically brooding desert Americana textures of ‘There Was A Time’, a reflection on people, places and times that have passed, especially those lost to conflict who “sleep now on foreign shores.” It’s a theme that also informs the slow waltz crawl of ‘Winner’, thoughts from overseas where “Summer here can hit eighty five in the day/And take the strength from the strongest man”, “raking through the past” and reflecting on lost friends, lost youth and a lost relationship while clinging to the hope that “all things will become new again/ And my friend me and you again/ Will paint the whole damn town red/Tear down the walls, have a ball”.

Possessed of a hauntingly melodic organ underpinned chorus, ‘Ghosts’ is another deliberate, slow-paced number that, winters “colder than they used to be”, again treats on loss, both personal and the death of once vibrant high streets as “Only old ghosts walk behind you/On that road”.

Its echoes carry over into the stunningly desolate and despairing ‘Town With No Cheer’, followed in turn by the bluesy fingerpicked ‘A Place By the River’, the lines “The men they don’t cry here god forbid and oh the shame/Soldiers of god show no mercy when they fight and kill and maim”, finding the narrator back in the combat zone, where “each day I watch my friends fall”, “boxed in with no way out” and remembering “a place by the river on the bend where the willow grows” while “gambling on a book that says Jesus saves will bring me safe home to you” even though “God’s left his heaven and nobody can hear me at all”. Given the Timmins link, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say this could easily have found a home on The Trinity Session.

Taken at a mid-tempo jogging strum, ‘A Fine Day To Leave’ is, relatively speaking, a more optimistic number in as much as, the old streets now rubble and where “junk blocks the river where we used to sail/ Our paper ships on summer days”, it’s about having nothing to keep him from bidding it all farewell, his lover hopefully joining him on the search for better times.

The autobiographical ‘Northside’ carriea memories of its cobbled streets and “rows of houses all the same”, of being born in the year Elvis recorded ‘It’s Now Or Never’, of growing up in the shadows of the shipyard, walking with his later grandfather on New Brighton Pier, of young boys gone to war straight from school and of seeing “so many good things disappear.” And yet, again that glimmer of hope finds its way through in an uplifting chorus avowing “There will be better times/A light to guide a star to shine”.

Still, you can’t keep a good depressive down for long, and so the album ends with the Clarke-like ‘You Stole My Joy’, where, while “Grandma’s in the kitchen at the stove/ Singing along to the radio/Singing ‘Any old wind that blows’”, he’s confessing he’s “too bad for my own good”, that “The romance has gone like the great Wild West” and how “Nothing much got built after seventy nine/The whole damn town it took a dive”.

Like Cohen before him, Bowers is magnificent proof that melancholy and torment can produce great music and resonant lyrics, there may be ghosts behind us but Paper Ships encourages us to take their hands and walk with them towards the light.

Mike Davies

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‘Winner’:

COWBOY JUNKIES – All That Reckoning (Proper PRPCD149)

All That ReckoningIt has been six years since the Cowboy Junkies last released an album. The Nomad Series may have been something of a diversion for the band although it included some of their best work, particularly on Renmin Park, but with All That Reckoning they are back in their mainstream. I will admit to having all their albums and having had the pleasure of meeting Margo and Michael Timmins but I always hesitate before reviewing one of their albums for fear of over-analysing. All That Reckoning is no different.

The title track is in two parts. Part one, which opens the album, begins with Alan Anton’s subterranean bass. In an odd way it reminds me of Dylan’s ‘Tears Of Rage’ in that there seems to be a sub-text that I can’t quite figure out. Part two, is much heavier, and makes me think of Leonard Cohen – if Cohen had ever fronted a big rock band. You’ll probably hear something else entirely which is what I mean about over-analysing. ‘When We Arrive’ includes the killer line “welcome to the world of self-delusion” – a song about immigrants in the 21st century? ‘The Things We Do To Each Other’ is another killer song that is overtly political in a way that we don’t expect to hear from Cowboy Junkies. “You can control hate” sings Margo and if the song isn’t about Trump I’m the nylon-haired scion of European immigrants. The song ends on an optimistic note – it can’t last forever.

The record’s sound is typical Junkies with Anton’s bass and Michael Timmins’ guitar providing the foundation of the songs with Peter Timmins’ drums mostly restrained. Jeff Bird is undoubtedly doing clever things over the top but I have no information about what he or other musicians are doing but there are synths and reversed tapes involved. Actually, the restraint lasts until ‘Sing Me A Song’ when the bass and drums pound, the lead guitar screams and Margo’s voice is distorted. You won’t be allowed to drift away on a swathe of gentle music for a while. ‘Missing Children’ is something of a puzzle – I think it’s about the end of youthful dreams but here again the band is at full blast and Margo iis sometimes lost in the mix. Is ‘Shining Teeth’ about domestic abuse? It feels like it is but I’m just piecing clues together from the lyrics.

The final track, ‘The Possessed’, introduced by a solo ukulele trashes all the mythology of Satanic contracts. There is no deal at the midnight crossroads, no ‘Devil And The Feathery Wife’. In this song the devil appears as something desirable and he has you. There really is a moral there. Michael Timmins describes Al That Reckoning as being deeper and more complete than anything Cowboy Junkies have done before. I can’t help but agree with him.

Dai Jeffries

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‘All That Reckoning’ – official video:

Cowboy Junkies – The Wilderness

You remember the Cowboy Junkies, right? Well, they are just about to release The Wilderness, Volume 4 of The Nomad Series on March 26, 2012, marking the conclusion of an ambitious schedule of four releases over an 18-month period. Before we get into that though, have a look at this gem of a video clip recording (one of our favorite folking Neil Young songs) which was recorded a few years back when the band played in Dingle, in Ireland.

The group’s Michael Timmins says of the new CD, “The title, The Wilderness, in some odd way seemed to define what these songs were actually “about”: fragility, emptiness, loneliness, beauty, chance, loss, desperation – the delicate balancing act that makes up a life. They are about being lost in the wilderness of age, the wilderness of parenthood, in the wilderness of just trying to find meaning and substance, happiness and truth in one’s day to day life. They are about standing alone in middle of it all, breathing in the cold, still air and wondering.”

The preceding album, Sing In My Meadow, a collection of songs recorded over a four day period that evokes the psychedelic, blues-inspired forays the band is fond of exploring on stage was hailed by R2 Magazine as:“Stunning”, while Q Magazine wrote: “..their creative instincts remain sharp…even familiar listeners will be intrigued.”

The first volume of the series Renmin Park, released in 2010, was inspired by Michael Timmins’ two-month stay in China with his family in ’08 and was called: “Their best album since those Trinity Sessions” by the Independent on Sunday. Demons (2011), the second in the series, is a collection of songs by the late Vic Chesnutt which the Daily Mirror called: “The finest tribute Vic could have”.

“The whole Nomad series is excellent, each album different and each outstanding in its own way”. Dai Jeffries Folking.com

Cowboy Junkies were formed in Toronto in 1985 after guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins and long-time friend and musical partner, bassist Alan Anton, recruited Michael’s sister, singer Margo Timmins and brother, drummer Peter Timmins to join them.

The band recorded its blues-inspired debut album Whites Off Earth Now!! (1986) and released it on their own Latent label. Touring the US in support of the album, they traveled extensively through the South and Southwest, soaking up the music of Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and others, which provided the inspiration for the band’s second effort, The Trinity Session. The Trinity Session, the band’s seminal album, is a melancholic mixture of blues, country, folk, and rock featuring a collection of originals, covers and traditional songs.

For more than 20 years, Cowboy Junkies have remained true to their unique artistic vision and to the introspective, quiet intensity that is their musical signature, creating a critically acclaimed body of original work that has endeared them to an audience unwavering in its loyalty. Albums like The Caution Horses (1990), Black Eyed Man (1992), Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993),Lay It Down (1996) and more recently, Open(2001), One Soul Now (2004), Early 21st Century Blues (2005) and At the End of Paths Taken (2007) chronicle a creative journey reflecting the independent road the band has elected to travel.

Cowboy Junkies returned to Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity for a day in November 2006, joined by Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt to revisit the repertoire of The Trinity Session in celebration of its 20thanniversary. The resulting film, Trinity Session Revisited, released as a DVD/CD in January 2008.

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Artist Web link: http://latentrecordings.com/cowboyjunkies/