No longer affiliated with any label, Cowboy Junkies are flexing their muscles as they pass their 25th anniversary. They launched a series of four albums last year, the rest of which will be appearing over the course of 2011. It’s called “The Nomad Series,” and the second volume, Demons, is devoted to the songs of Vic Chesnutt. The band actually had been discussing doing a collaborative project with him before his death at the end of 2009.
Chesnutt’s musical identity straddles genres in much the same as the Cowboy Junkies do. He was equally able to project with just an acoustic guitar as with a band and an arsenal of noisy foot pedals. He loved sandpapery surfaces, both in sound and words. Margo Timmins’ controlled singing may at first seem an odd match for Chesnutt’s propensity for vocals that seem just a few steps away from talking. But when Cowboy Junkies’ recipe works it’s because of the tension between Margo’s vibratoed timbres and brother Michael’s scuffed sonics. That combination is what makes most of this set work exceedingly well. The standout tracks tend to be the more intimate ones. “West of Rome” is heartbreakingly poignant and cinematically riveting, while “We Hovered With Short Wings” has a paper-thin bearing that seems like it could disappear from the slightest wisp of air.
The only misstep is “Wrong Piano.” The band sound lost in a large loud room, a problem that may have been tempered by it not being the opening number. But to close these remarks with that issue would incorrectly frame what is a lovingly considered and realized album.