The Trinity Session
52:59 min • RCA / Latent Records • November 15, 1988
Walter Beck reviews
Recorded on one microphone in a couple of days at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, the Cowboy Junkies’ second album, The Trinity Session, launched the band into the mainstream and ushered in the alternative country movement. Featuring six originals and six covers, the album’s eclectic selection speaks of romance, hard times, loneliness, and the long road.
Opening with the a cappella ‘Mining for Gold’, the album gets off to a rather haunting start, with vocalist Margo Timmins’ lonely voice echoing the traditional working man’s folk song,
Can’t you feel the rock dust in your lungs?
It’ll cut down a miner when he is still young.
Two years and the silicosis takes hold,
and I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold.
Yes, I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold –
The rest of the band joins in for the next song, ‘Misguided Angel’, the first original song on the album. A tragic love song about being trapped in an abusive relationship, the song is beautiful in its own way, with vocalist Margo’s subtle, nearly whispered voice and the country blues backing of the band,
Misguided Angel hanging over me.
Heart like a Gabriel, pure and white as ivory.
Soul like a Lucifer, black and cold like a piece of lead.
Misguided Angel, love you ’til I’m dead –
With such lyrics and a passionate voice, Margo lays out one of the most heartfelt country ballads since George Jones.
‘Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)’ is a bit of an oddity on the record, its half-cover, half-rewrite of the classic ‘Blue Moon’. Musically, the song is in a firm, swinging blues territory to capture the spirit of the original. But the darker tone of this version is what sets it apart, the band’s lonesome sounds and the echo-like effects of the venue it was recorded in make for a true highlight on this album.
Speaking of covers, one of the best on this album is the band’s take on Hank Williams’ iconic song ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. Stripping away Williams’ original thumping honky-tonk arrangement, the band goes for a slow jazz feel, allowing for the desperation of Williams’ lyrics to shine through in a way they never have before. Alan Anton’s bass rhythms and Peter Timmins’ brush stroke drumming offer a perfect accompaniment to Margo’s weeping vocals.
‘To Love is to Bury’ is a take on a classic country theme of love and death, a sparse ballad about a lover gone, the band pays fitting tribute to the fallen, with their stripped down sound, featuring some excellent steel guitar work. And of course, Margo’s vocals take center stage,
They say to love is to bury,
Those demons from which we all hide.
But tonight by this river ‘neath this willow tree,
Becoming one are Earth and Sky –
Speaking of classic themes, the band tackles the lonely road on the next cut, ‘200 More Miles’. This is one that fits their sparse sound perfectly, through the dark, gentle rhythms, mixed in with the harmonica work and steel guitar, the music alone creates the image of a long road left to travel before you can rest.
The band covers another traditional folk song with ‘Working on a Building’, unlike the haunting a cappella rendition of ‘Mining for Gold’ that opened the album, this time the group gets a good folk swing, something you could almost dance to. It offers a glimpse of brightness in such a stark sounding album.
Track ten is the one put the Cowboy Junkies on the map in mainstream music, their brilliant cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sweet Jane’. Their version is based on the live take from the Velvets’ double album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, it’s easy to hear why this cover song broke the band into the mainstream, the mellow, raw sound captures the feeling of the Velvets’ original nearly perfectly.
‘Postcard Blues’ is the last original song on the record and it finds the band at their best, playing dark, sparse country blues. Accented by foot-tapping, rather than drumming, it harkens back to the dusty street corners of the old delta blues players.
The album comes to an end with one last cover song, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’, originally made famous by country singer Patsy Cline. Once again, the music alone paints the picture with the rhythm work of Alan Anton and Peter Timmins, pounding out a swaying, walking jazz beat. Margo brings the album to a finish with one last belt of the chorus;
I’m always walking after midnight,
Yeah, out in the moonlight.
Hoping you may be,
Somewhere a-walking after midnight,
Searching for me.
I’m always walking after midnight,
Searching for you –
This album remains a landmark for the alternative country album, mixing an independent music aesthetic with traditional country sounds and themes. The sound was raw, according to the band, no mixing, no editing, no overdubbing was used, what you hear is what you get. In single takes and in a few short days, they created one of the iconic albums of a new alt sound.
The alternative country scene would expand; Illinois’s Uncle Tupelo would release their debut No Depression two years later, becoming the first big names of the American alt country movement. But it was a quartet of Canadians who laid the groundwork with a raw, stark sounding, blues-soaked record.