There is a darkness about the Cowboy Junkies that has presided over their song writing since their early beginnings 15 years ago. Their latest effort, Renmin Park, certainly continues this tradition. However, the band deviates slightly from their formula as they flirt with sinister bass lines layered over urban city loops and infectious rhythms. File it under alt-country folk with a side of trip hop. Renmin Park is volume 1 of 4 in The Nomad Series of which the remaining 3 are scheduled to be released over the next 18 months. The album is perhaps a foreshadowing of the direction the band is travelling.
The title and opening track (after the intro) is a bit misleading as it sounds like the Junkies of old complete with dark and slow acoustic guitar played mostly in minor tones and accompanied by Margo Timmins’ soft and intensive vocals. ‘Renmin Park’ is in reference to public gathering spaces and memorial sites throughout China, and towards the end of the tune, an Asian inspired violin forecasts the ideological change of musical scenery. ‘Sir Francis Bacon at the Net’ catches the listener off guard with looped Asian ramblings that become a patterned rhythm for the dark bass lines (I can’t say enough about the bass lines) and slow pulsating drums.
‘A Stranger Here’ once again returns to more of a familiar territory as the bluesy guitar riff and absence of any trip-hop elements make it feel like a good ol’ Canadian rock tune. ‘I Cannot Sit Sadly by Your Side’ brings back a great bass hook and introduces a deliberate meandering piano; a perfect song to enjoy the last few drips of that bottle of bourbon you have been holding on to. ‘A Good Heart’ is perhaps a highlight of the album with a funky feel to the drums, more of that gorgeous piano and an interesting ending with plenty of ambient debris to keep you warm.
One thing the Junkies do not offer is easy pop motifs. They have stayed true to writing songs with deeper meanings and even deeper moods. Conversely, for 4 minutes of the fifty minute album, the Junkies introduce a light string section and an almost catchy chorus in the track ‘My Fall’. The song is a tad out of place when compared to the other mood monsters, but is a pleasant piece in its own right. ‘Cicadas’ masters the ideal of the dark motif as it relies on a slow and cerebral monophonic guitar riff that will stick in your head for hours. The song has the potential to build into a crescendo of epic proportions, but instead settles on a minimalistic climax making the track all that more appealing.
Renmin Park mixes some of that classic Junkies sound with a newer twist on their roots. It is a record full of Asian inspired soundscapes and dark imagery. The album is sure to lead the band and their fans to new heights and different directions.