The covers album has something of a spotty history. Popularised by the likes of David Bowie in the 1970s, it has given everyone from David Kitt to Ronan Keating a chance to sing their ‘favourites’, with decidedly mixed results. It sometimes seems like the thing to do if you’re running short on inspiration. Unless you are The Cowboy Junkies of course. The band made their mark early in their career with some well-chosen covers, notably Sweet Jane by the Velvet Underground. It’s something of a surprise then that this is their first full album of other people’s songs (they had previously released covers on EPs). With a tracklist that includes songs by David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, two Neil Young songs, Bob Dylan and The Cure, they have set a high bar.
Bowie’s Five Years shouldn’t work but it DOES. Margo Timmins loosens the control she generally exerts on her voice to deliver a fine performance of the song, building in intensity gradually just like the original. It’s followed by the shimmering honky tonk rock of Gram Parsons’ Ooh Las Vegas and a relaxed, supple version of the Stones’ No Expectations. They have covered Neil Young before, but here they make two attempts, with two very different treatments. A ragged Don’t Let It Bring You Down transforms the original into a slow groove rocker with Michael Timmins’ wonderfully rough guitar to the fore. The lesser heard Love In Mind is given a languid, wasted interpretation and it suits them well. It’s possibly the finest track here.
Later, Gordon Lightfoot’s The Way I Feel is rocked up while Vic Chestnutt’s Marathon channels a kind of creeping dread. Seventeen Seconds is the final track on the Cure’s 42-year-old album of the same name, and it’s also the last track here, and the one most recently written. The slow, plodding original is given an excellent Crazy Horse style makeover.
A slight quibble is that some of these songs have appeared on previous releases but as an album, the collection works. The Cowboy Junkies have carved a niche for themselves as great interpreters of others’ songs and this album reinforces those credentials.