Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session was pretty revolutionary when it was first released in November 1988. Their second release, it was recorded pretty much “live” and pretty much in one day, in a Toronto church, around a single microphone. It consisted mostly of covers of classic country, rock and folk songs with a few originals thrown in, played mostly on acoustic instruments, sung by Margo Timmins in her sultry barroom-singer style. In retrospect, it’s one of the foundational albums of what is now considered Americana music, and at the time there wasn’t much like it.
The Junkies then were, and still are, Timmins on vocals with her brothers Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, with Alan Anton on electric bass guitar. They had a handful of guests on this date at the Church of the Holy Trinity in November 1987, including multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird who’s been with them regularly ever since. Here he played fiddle, mandolin and harmonica; Kim Deschamps played pedal steel, Dobro and slide guitar; Jaro Czerwinec played accordion; and Steve Shearer guested on harmonica on three tracks. Brother John Timmins also lends a hand with guitar.
On about the 20th anniversary of its recording in 2007, Cowboy Junkies went back to the church with some higher-profile guests including Natalie Merchant and Ryan Adams, and re-recorded the album, which was released as Trinity Revisited. Now, coming up on 30 years since its original recording, they’ve remastered the original source recordings, which were on early-generation digital audio, and are releasing the album on high-quality vinyl and high-fidelity CDs. I’ve only heard the CD version, and the difference is notable. CD quality in the late ’80s was quite poor, and combined with the conditions under which it was recorded, it made for a frustratingly thin, murky, and hollow sound much of the time.
Cowboy Junkies’s signature sound has been with them from the start, an approach to country, early rock and roll, and their own material that is languidly paced, with influences from jazz, blues and folk in addition to country and rock. An early and mostly gentle version of shoe-gaze country, really. As an album, Trinity has gone platinum in the U.S. and double platinum in Canada. They’ve always been more popular in their native Canada than anywhere else, but a couple of singles off this album charted in the U.S., U.K., and Australia.
One of those was their reinterpretation of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Blue Moon,” which they blended with a few verses of their own tragic love-song lyrics and titled “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis).” It wasn’t included on the original CD release, which was on their own independent Latent label, but was added when they were picked up by RCA/BMG and given wider circulation in North America. It’s really a wonderful bit of Americana and a very creative arrangement.
The two other singles were Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” which hit No. 5 on the U.S. modern rock charts, and a Junkies original that’s right up there with the best songs they’ve done in a lengthy career, “Misguided Angel.” It’s one of my favorite songs of the era, and definitely the best of the originals on the album, although the bluesy “I Don’t Get It” is a close second.
They really shine on all of the covers, which they reimagine in creative ways. Three classic country songs – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” and “Walking After Midnight,” all are re-harmonized and drastically slowed, as is the traditional gospel number “Working On A Building,” which features a hypnotic bass line by Anton and jazzy guitar fills.
The arrangements throughout are well done. The guest musicians, particularly on harmonica, accordion and occasional pedal steel, provide just enough subtle flourishes to keep these languid songs interesting, but show enough restraint not to tart things up. I haven’t followed Cowboy Junkies much through the years, and only have one other of their albums – from this same era – but The Trinity Session is a landmark recording for anyone with an interest in Americana and its roots. And this remaster is definitely the one to have. I’m no audiophile, but it sounds quite nice on CD (it’s being released on SACD and HD), and I imagine the 200-gram vinyl is superb.
(Analogue Productions, 2017)