Cowboy Junkies

Margo Timmins's languid, hypnotic voice is still the best thing about this Canadian-based country-rock group. Second best is the band's ability to come across both hip and heartfelt, a quality they raised to sublime levels on their celebrated second album, The Trinity Sessions (1987).

Black-Eyed Man is the Junkies' fourth release, following by two years the somewhat pallid The Caution Horses. Like that album, Black-Eyed Man relies almost exclusively on the songwriting efforts of Margo's brother Michael, who also handles guitar and production duties. With brother Peter on drums and family friend Alan Anton on bass, the band snakes through 12 rough-hewn numbers, all perceptively sung by Timmins.

Joining her on the role-reversing ballad "If You Were the Woman, and I Was the Man" is folkie singer-songwriter John Prine, whose hoarse vocals provide an effective counterpoint to Timmins's dreamy delivery. "If I was the woman and you were the man," he sings, "would I laugh if you came to me/ With your heart in your hand?" The band plays two effective numbers by country songwriter Townes Van Zandt: "Cowboy Junkies Lament," full of quiet rue, and the harmony-rich "To Live Is to Fly."

While there is much solid musicianship throughout, the album's overall effect is somewhat lackluster, which may be due to the sameness of the material. Once known for their beautifully bent interpretations of songs by Lou Reed, John Lee Hooker and Hank Williams, to name a few, the Junkies have gone too far toward making somnolence their signature. They might be better served by shopping for tunes that let the band cut loose again in what was once its inimitably loopy way. By relying so heavily on Michael's compositions—complex in their narratives but fairly monotonous melodically—the band may have written itself, this time, into a musical rut. (RCA)

Social Distortion

First, go to the toughest bar in the seediest part of town, a place where the cigarette smoke is so thick you need a switchblade to slice through it. Bring a drum kit and guitars with you, and ask a handful of the scowling, leather-clad patrons to see what they can do with the instruments—so much the better if they don't know which end is up and couldn't care less. The resulting racket should approximate what you get on the latest release from Social Distortion.

This Los Angeles foursome spews out rock and roll at its grungiest. Lots of crunching guitar anthems, reminiscent of, say, Neil Young at his crankiest. It's perfect music for a Harley-Davidson convention. Social Distortion used to play pure punk, but they've added enough melody to attract a more mainstream audience, while retaining the all-important elixir of anger.

The sound of Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell sets the perfect down-and-dirty tone for the bleak lyrics, which are precisely the sort of low-life tales you'd hear bandied about in a sleazy gin joint. Lovers who lose. Lovers who booze. Lovers who kill their loved ones. You don't know whether to buy the band another round or urge them to seek counseling.

In either case Between Heaven and Hell is the perfect way to experience basic bar-room rock. And you don't have to go home reeking of cigarette smoke and spilled beer. (Epic)

BILLY STRITCH

At the risk of sounding like a churl, I think I liked Stritch better when he was still affiliated with Montgomery, Plant and Stritch, a Texas-based vocal jazz group in the tradition of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross or the Manhattan Transfer. Admittedly, Stritch, with his bonhomie and winning way at the helm of a piano, was the linchpin of MP&S. But he seemed a bit more anchored in the group, a bit less likely to go over the top.

To be fair, there is a great deal to admire in Stritch's first solo effort. His taste in music is irreproachable, his arrangements deft and witty. He does a terrific merging of Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" with "Let's Do It"; "Dream Dancing" with "You Stepped Out of a Dream"; and most particularly, a fine, propulsive, tongue-twisting meld of "Night and Day" with "One Note Samba"—and who ever would have thought such an unlikely pairing could work so well?

Indeed, Stritch gleams in fast-paced songs and with those that don't test his vocal range so much, for example, the wonderfully scatted "No Moon at All" and "Buds Won't Bud." Less successful are numbers like "It Amazes Me" and "Teach Me Tonight," which have Stritch holding notes longer than his pleasant, if not especially distinguished, voice can make attractive and attempting contact with notes beyond comfortable reach. His teaming with Liza Minnelli for "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "As Long as I Live" delivers annoyance in stereo—a tumult of mutually infatuated egos and bravura uvulas. (DRG)

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Shea,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Joanne Kaufman.