Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cowboy Junkies - Whites Off Earth Now!! (1986)

Cowboy Junkies' first album has remained underappreciated in light of the success of their later work. But despite its flip title (Cracker From Another Planet, anyone?), Whites Off Earth Now!! is a mesmerizing and beautiful album, one with a great deal to say, and with hidden depths which reveal themselves on repeated listens.

There is only one original track on this album – and the loose theme is blues, but a unique blues in which Margo Timmin’s smooth, emotionless voice creates a sense of disconnection and menace which gives a new edge to the melancholy and despair inherent in that genre – while the gender disconnect in the lyrics adds to this sense of disquiet - a later comparison might be found in Martina Topley-Bird's work on tracks like Black Steel or Bad Dream. This is a highly atmospheric album – the songs evoke late-night driving both in their slow, loping rhythms and in the lyrics of tracks like 'State Trooper'. There is a sense of quiet threat here, an understated coldness, a hint of the precursor or aftermath of violence, which may be little apparent on cursory listens but which deeply informs the entire work and forms its central sensibility. Timmin’s vocals haunt the songs, floating above them, while the non-vocal work on the one hand creates an hypnotic atmosphere as figures and rhythms repeat, minimalistically, with a slow but building insistence, and on the other disrupts this very atmosphere with unexpected shivers, tones and caterwauls – an effect which reminds me of the way in which dub uses the tension between repetition and the dropping of unexpected intrusions into and out of a work to create aural landscapes.

While covers include such Americaniac icons as Springsteen, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, if there is a figure presiding over the proceedings, it is Robert Johnson (whose tracks 'Me and the Devil Blues' and 'Crossroads' are both featured) – and, looming behind Johnson, the devil himself, but a devil personified within and without the figure of a sorrowful, vengeful protagonist making his way (and, as mentioned above, ‘his’ is the appropriate pronoun) through an updated Hopperesque landscape of urban ghettoes and murky swamps, striplit highways and backwoods hovels. You’ll never get out of these blues alive…

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