Cowboy Junkies, Gaslight Anthem, The Pernice Brothers, Tom Petty and Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere

The latest Cowboy Junkies album, 'Renmin Park,' is something of a beginning for the Canadian quartet that came to prominence with the release of 'The Trinity Sessions' 22 years ago. The circumstances that led to 'Renmin Park,' and the next three Cowboy J

Jul 6, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The latest Cowboy Junkies album, Renmin Park, is something of a beginning for the Canadian quartet that came to prominence with the release of The Trinity Sessions 22 years ago. The circumstances that led to Renmin Park, and the next three Cowboy Junkies albums for that matter, are an almost perfect storm of creative conceptualism and execution.

The first step in the process concerned the end of the Junkies’ contractual obligations, allowing them the freedom to pursue any path they chose. The second step came in 2008 when Michael Timmins and his family spent three months in China absorbing everything from the culture to the varied perspectives in the local, regional and national music scenes. The third step was translating the inspiration of the first two situations into the first album of a proposed four-album cycle, the work that ultimately became Renmin Park.

In most respects, Renmin Park exhibits all of the sonic touchstones that have defined the Junkies for the past two and a half decades, from Margo Timmins’ ethereally weary voice to Michael Timmins’ soothing, searing guitar to the heartbeat of Peter Timmins’ bass and Alan Anton’s drums. The subtler difference is the conceptual nature of Renmin Park, inspired by Michael’s China revelations and made possible by the band’s distinct lack of a label overseer.

On the surface, Renmin Park is a fictional love story that sprang from Michael Timmins’ imagination following his Chinese excursion. But at a deeper level, the album represents the creative unshackling of a band that has long wanted to do more than just sing songs and sell albums. Renmin Park is punctuated with field recordings of Chinese life that Michael captured during his various experiences, and the Junkies even cover a couple of icons from China’s Rock scene — Zuoxiao Zuzhou (“I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side”) and Xu Wei (“My Fall”) — translated by the young man who introduced Michael to the artists during his visit.

Both Chinese songs fit well within the Junkies’ oeuvre, particularly in the context of this album, which runs the gamut from the quiet, desperate beauty of the title track and the discordant haze of feedback and rolling sonic thunder of “Sir Francis Bacon at the Net” to the more conventional Junkies atmosphere of “Stranger Here” and the thumping syncopated hymnal of “(You’ve Got to Get) A Good Heart.”

Renmin Park is the first volume of the Junkies’ proposed Nomad Series, which is to be followed by an album of Vic Chesnutt covers, and two additional albums which are still in the creation phase. All of it will be documented in a book that will explore each album’s inspiration and feature paintings by Enrique Martinez Celaya, whose work appears in the design of Renmin Park. It’s a fascinating project and it begins with Renmin Park, a wonderful extension and expansion of the Cowboy Junkies’ long musical journey.

The word legend gets tossed around all too often in Rock circles, but when it comes to Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere, “legend” doesn’t begin to do justice to the accomplishments of a pair of guys who have actually altered the course of musical history. Cropper was one of the framers of the Stax sound and is quite literally one of the most widely regarded and recorded guitarists on the planet. Cavaliere’s work with The Rascals in the ’60s helped to usher in the potent era of blue-eyed Soul that flourished and expanded in the wake of the band’s phenomenal success.

Cropper and Cavaliere first collaborated in 2008’s Nudge It Up a Notch, an album that wound up being one of the real surprises of the year in its seamless blend of Soul classicism and contemporary energy.

For Midnight Flyer, the sophomore release from Cropper and Cavaliere, the duo wisely chooses to leave its formula unchanged, working the already established magic on a sweet set of smooth Soul/Pop originals, particularly the slinky “You Give Me All I Need,” the late night vibe of “Now” and the Soul/Pop Rascals-on-Reggae “All Night Long,” plus a smoldering cover of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” And if things get just a shade too smooth on “Sexy Lady,” the pair and their crack band set the course right again on the album’s closer, the blistering groove instrumental “Do It Like This.”

If there’s a secret weapon in Cropper and Cavaliere’s arsenal, it’s the songwriting mojo of drummer/vocalist Tom Hambridge, whose presence loomed equally large on Nudge It Up a Notch. The danger in putting guys of Cropper and Cavaliere’s stature together is that their almost monolithic achievements could cancel each other out in the studio. But when Soul is the intersection, Cropper and Cavaliere know how to work all four corners in complete creative cooperation.

Two seminal occurrences in Brian Fallon’s early life were hearing Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run when he was 9 years old and seeing The Afghan Whigs not long after. Although the New Jersey native didn’t quite yet have the tools to channel those two events in a creative fashion, they stayed buried in his psyche until forming a succession of transient teenage bands that ultimately led to Gaslight Anthem in 2005. From the outset, Fallon has endeavored to translate his love of Springsteen’s epic Rock anthems in the more compact style of Punk troubadours like Paul Westerberg, coming up with a singular Punk/Rock hybrid in the process.

On American Slang, Gaslight Anthem’s third full-length album, Fallon and the band (guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine, drummer Benny Horowitz) expand on the sound and scope of its first two releases, 2007’s Sink or Swim and 2008’s The ’59 Sound. There are still plenty of Springsteen-fronting-the-Replacements moments here — the anthemic ring of the title track, the relentless Punk/Pop Clash crash of “Stay Lucky — but the Anthem push its envelope into new and completely appropriate areas on American Slang.

“Bring It On” has the scuffed Rock classicism that Ian Hunter has perfected (which ultimately triangulates Fallon’s fandom with both Hunter’s and Springsteen’s love of Bob Dylan), while “The Diamond Church Street Choir” revisits the Celtic Soul/Pop that Van Morrison championed three decades ago and “Orphans” blasts out of the speakers like a Boss tribute featuring Ryan Adams and the Dropkick Murphys.

Even though a lot of sonic reference points rise naturally to the surface with Gaslight Anthem, it’s the band’s brilliance at folding all of those touchstones into its own unique take that ultimately distinguishes the band from its influences and its Punk peers.

Joe Pernice is another one of those exquisitely talented individuals who deserve to be awash in fame and fortune and is more or less a cult artist with a small but fervent following. Pernice began in the early ’90s in a Northampton, Mass., Rock band called The Scuds, which morphed into the Scud Mountain Boys, a Folk/Rock reflection of the original band that grew out of the Scuds’ post-gig acoustic kitchen jams. Pernice still felt slightly constrained creatively and he left the Scud Mountain Boys after their debut album to pursue a Pop direction with his side project, The Pernice Brothers.

The first Pernice Brothers album, 1998’s Overcome by Happiness, was a triumph of melancholy baroque Pop, featuring Pernice’s take on influences as varied as Jimmy Webb, The Bee Gees and Sammy Davis Jr. While it made most critics’ year-end best-of lists, it ultimately achieved only minor commercial success.

That pattern has played out with Pernice’s subsequent releases, as well. He’s continued with the Pernice Brothers over the past dozen years, put out a handful of solo releases under his own name (the first, 2000’s Big Tobacco, had no artist identification at all) and done an even more melancholy one-off under the banner Chappaquidick Skyline. But perhaps the most significant development in Pernice’s career was assembling his own studio and starting his own record label nine years ago, events that allowed him to call his own creative shots.

Pernice is clearly at the height of his powers on Goodbye, Killer, the sixth Pernice Brothers album. The four-year gap since 2006’s Live a Little was not idle time for Pernice, who published his debut novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop, wrote and recorded a soundtrack to the book and toured to support all of it. As a result, Goodbye, Killer was written and recorded relatively quickly, which is evidenced by the album’s brevity and immediacy. Don’t mistake that for a criticism — Pernice is an absolute master editor and knows that a 10-song, 32-minute CD that bristles with energy and passion from start to finish beats a 15-song, 50-minute album padded with unnecessary rest stops.

“Bechamel” plays like a tribute to John Hiatt, albeit with Pernice’s hyperliterate lyrical twists and turns and baroque-Pop-meets-Indie-Rock pace, while “Jacqueline Susann” bounces along like a Smithereens outtake and “We Love the Stage” is a lilting little Pop vaudeville homage to Van Dyke Parks and Loudon Wainwright III. Pernice’s avowed Bee Gees jones comes to the surface on “The Loving Kind,” stripped of any pedantic romanticism and rife with his patented honesty and lyrical brilliance. The title track could be a lost Faces nugget about a lost friend and “Fucking and Flowers” sounds like a summit meeting between Elvis Costello, Scott Miller and Matthew Sweet.

Goodbye, Killer is a wide-ranging and completely satisfying album, a brilliantly stripped back set that’s certainly not a philosophical departure from anything in Joe Pernice’s increasingly great body of work.

Tom Petty has displayed perhaps the two most important qualities to have in a career in Rock — longevity and consistency. Oddly enough, those same two qualities might also be an artist’s greatest liabilities. Hang around long enough and you become a generational relic; perform at a high enough level long enough and people, sometimes even your biggest fans, begin to take you for granted.

Amazingly, Petty — in both band and solo contexts — has managed to escape either fate. He’s never taken a real critical pasting on any of his albums and while little in his canon could be considered truly groundbreaking — outside of his early albums when his work was still a surprise — every Petty album has hinted at the greatness that he has more than occasionally achieved in his 33-year run.

Mojo, Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album of new material in eight years, starts with “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” an energetic yet fairly standard Blues boogie that seems to signal that Petty and the boys might be content to coast a bit. And just that fast, “First Flash of Freedom” slinks out of the speakers with the sinewy grace of the jazzy Rock that emerged in the post-Jimi Hendrix ’70s, an evocation of Hendrix’s Cry of Love, L.A. Woman-era Doors and post-Traffic Steve Winwood, a feel that recurs on “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove.”

For all the Blues jams that populate Mojo, Petty and the band uncork an absolute sky-shaker with “I Should Have Known It,” a torch-and-scorch remodel of Led Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and The Who’s “The Seeker.”

Petty’s creative vision is so consistent and potent that it’s hard not to hear the ghosts of songs past in his new work, like the balladic reimagining of “Learning to Fly” in “Something Good Coming,” but it’s just as easy to trace his debt to Dylan in “No Reason to Cry.” But just as it’s been since Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ eponymous debut in 1977, the important thing is not the influences that inform Petty’s work but the towering and transcendent influence that he’s become himself in the process of filtering them through his singular work.