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Junkies Not Perfect for Pops

by Jonathan Perry, The Boston Globe. June 25, 2007

“We’re not known for our happy songs,” Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins told a knowing, chuckling Symphony Hall audience after the soft chords and swell of strings of a new and — yes — sad song, “Spiral Down,” had subsided. Then, with a sly smile, she introduced the next number, “about breaking up with somebody — but feeling really good about it.”

The band eased into a laconic, harmonica-fed “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” that again brought Timmins’ s drowsy, glazed-honey voice to the fore, and followed it up with ” ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel,” another lovely downward spiral into darkness and oblivion. The Boston Pops Orchestra, ostensibly the Cowboys’ collaborators for the first of two weekend shows here, fell silent.

The Pops’ massive but frequently mute presence behind the veteran Toronto roots outfit (expanded Saturday to a quintet to include longtime multi-instrumentalist collaborator Jeff Bird), pointed up both the potential and shortcomings of Edge- Fest, now in its third year, which pairs the Pops with an array of contemporary pop and rock-oriented artists. It is an intriguing and well-intentioned idea meant to cross-pollinate idioms and audiences, and liberate both.

When the approach worked — as it did, wonderfully, on the lusciously languid opener, “Brand New World,” and the gathering rainstorm of “Follower 2,” both from the Junkies’ new, strings-heavy CD, “At the End of Paths Taken” — the alchemy had a touch of stardust magic about it. Likewise, Pops conductor Keith Lockhart’s cheerful presence, and the underpinnings of brass and strings on the Junkies’ stately, dream-like cover of the Velvet Underground’s iconic “Sweet Jane ” lent the song about striving, denial, and nihilism a sanctified, and thereby subversive, splendor.

Ultimately, however, the Junkies — consisting of Timmins and her siblings Michael (guitar) and Peter (drums) Timmins, and friend Alan Anton on bass — make compulsively introverted music that so deeply revels in its own interior space and monumental solitude that the effect is almost monochromatic. Only through the band’s frightfully spare, suicidally slow reading of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” for instance, did one get a truly scary sense of what utter emotional desolation can do.

The Pops were and are, by contrast, blustery and intrinsically extroverted — puffed up with orchestral pomp, finery, and broad, brassy versatility. Thus, the coupling felt occasionally awkward and slightly uncomfortable, a bit like a wallflower at a mixer tentatively trying to mingle with the life-of-the-party host, and vice versa.

The evening opened with the Pops offering a selection of symphonic dances from “West Side Story,” and a pair of orchestral premieres: “Wish You Were Here,” a fanciful, engaging composition by 26-year-old Vermont native Nico Muhly ; and “Travelacoustica,” by rising Hollywood-born composer Felix Brenner.

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