(Latent/Razor & Tie)
Over the years, we've heard more and more from Michael Timmins. When the Cowboy Junkies sighed onto the scene with the surprise success of "The Trinity Session" (1988), we all fixated on the opiate voice of Margo Timmins, Michael's sister. On the 10 albums since, Margo has consistently haunted the band's soft, sluggish roots music. But chief songwriter and guitarist Michael has seeped slowly to the fore, musically and vocally. It's been a welcome intrusion.
"Renmin Park," the first in a four-part run of albums they're calling the Nomad Series, is art directed by Michael, inspired by three months he spent in China in 2008. Two decades have given him time and space to practice shaping the vast atmosphere created by Margo's airy voice. He's tried a lot of moody guitar effects, but here he uses samples and, more than in the past, his own voice as a spectral counterpoint to Margo's low, breathy singing.
The title track opens the album, grounding us with just an acoustic guitar and Margo singing, investing Asian imagery -- "Meet me on the banks of the Yangtze River" -- with her trademark melancholy. (Anyone who's read the poetry of China's Tang dynasty knows how much loneliness has dwelled in those river valleys.) There are two solid pop singles, too, "Stranger Here" and maybe "My Fall," just to prove there's something normal to hang an ear on.
But things get spooky quickly. In "Sir Francis Bacon at the Net," kung-fu sound effects underpin Michael's and Margo's voices, both of which are distorted, doubled, fighting against low guitar feedback, but richer for the octave-spaced duet. The two of them double up again on "(You've Got to Get) A Good Heart," a cheerful title presented as advice transmitted from the other side, a modern rhythmic shuffle pushing along an insistent moral, with the voices slipping out of the beat and eventually drowned out by operatic howling. In the background: some Chinese female voice barking a repetitive instruction like in an aerobics class, sampled and pinched.
It's Michael's voice coming through in different ways, and it sounds good.