Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Guest Spot: Special K takes on Trinity (Revisited)

Special K has been an amazing addition to my family, a kindred spirit I may have never known were it not for Lyman's marriage to the exceptional Carrie and blog link lists... from these virtual connections has grown a lovely friendship that allows us to share our common interests in music, literature, crafting, politics and snarky cynicism. K gave to me a mix cd a couple of years ago that has really directed my attention to a load of great music I'm not sure I'd have noticed otherwise...a major gift for a girl like me....Without further ado, I give you Special K!

The Cowboy Junkies: Trinity (Revisited)

Back when I was in college, owning the Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions was a mark of discriminating taste. And it was and probably still is one of my top five fave albums. There is not one bad song on that album. The album was recorded in 1987 in a church in Canada called The Church of the Holy Trinity, hence the name. Now, twenty years later, the Cowboy Junkies have released Trinity Revisited, and, to make it, they popped back to the Church of the Holy Trinity, re-recorded all the songs (most with guest artists) and the new album is all the songs, in order.

One of the guest singers is Natalie Merchant, whose low, sweet tones are a really nice accompaniment to the sort of old-fashioned lyrics but lead singer Margo Timmon's voice as well. Merchant sings on quite a few songs – notably Misguided Angel, To love is to Bury (which has the gorgeous reminiscence of an old Irish folk song) and Walking after Midnight (a Patsy Cline cover) . I'm nuts about those songs, because I love Natalie Merchant, and they're just great songs in general.

A few of the other "covers" (is it a cover if it's the same artist?) rub me the wrong way because the guest singers – alternately these two country singers Ryan Adams and Vic Chesnutt (I can't really tell them apart) – voices don't seem to meld as gracefully with the songs as Margo's. Of course, I've listened to this album like, four thousand times, so hearing a man's voice where I'm used to the dulcet tones of the Cowboy Junkies is a jarring experience.

But the most pressing question about this whole "Revisited" issue is whether the Cowboy Junkies have done something interesting or simply produced some ridiculous hackery? It's somewhat interesting to redo these beloved songs twenty years later and see what happens – but, what has happened is, honestly: not much. It's not like their aesthetic has changed, and for the most part, the arrangements are similar. Now, I don't have a great vocabulary for talking about aural artisty, but I can talk somewhat endlessly (and fascinatingly! Ha!) about the visual arts. So, sometimes when I'm listening to new music, I like to think in terms of visual arts. Like, this one time we went to a modern music concert, and I was like, "Ugh, this sucks!" But, then I thought, "Hey, a lot of people thought Jackson Pollock was horrible, and I love his paintings..." so, I try to listen to music with the same open mind that I bring to visual art. The (visual) art equivalent of Trinity Revisited would be if my favorite artist decided to repaint or resculpt her most famous work 20 years later. And not just that, but to rent out the same studio and buy the same materials and brushes that they used 20 years ago, and completely recreate the same work. Now, that... THAT's kinda lame, right?

God help me, but, even though I like a few of the songs on the album, they don't really bring anything new to the songs, which is, if you ask me, the only reason to cover a song, because, otherwise, what's the point? Even Celine Dion knows that. I wish the Cowboy Junkies had rather spent some time putting together another awesome album instead of remaking an old awesome one.


KHM said...

I know from experience it can be difficult to seperate yourself and your memories from music that you're very attached to. Even more difficult, still, to appreciate if and how its reinterpretation changes or enhances it. But it doesn't sound like there's enough different about this recording to warrant asking listeners to plunk down their money. And that's a huge misstep for artists, producers, recording labels.

I think a "cover" needs to deliver some well-crafted new insight into the music. As for what to call different (not live) recorded versions of a song by the original group or artist, unless its a cool remix or something, I just call it a bad idea.

Lyman said...

It stinks of a marketing ploy to sell records as opposed to revisiting a creative space and time. I usually give artists the benefit of the doubt though; Unplugged Greatest Hits set? Fine. Live DVD performance of a record? I can live with that. But re-recording the same entire album is a bit odd.

Special K said...

The funny thing is, you wouldn't expect the Cowboy Junkies to pull a marketing ploy - I mean, how more indie can you get, right?

Thanks very much for your kind words, Kathy!

KHM said...

I think its likely that this album is the result of a good plan gone bad. One that had the support of the Junkies going in and that somehow failed to deliver whatever creative promise lured them there. And you know what record labels do: they sell records. I'm going to dig around and see if I can offer some more conjecture and innuendo in lieu of insight here...

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