The Nomad Series (Box Set) Box set
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2012 five CD set from the Canadian band containing the first four installments in their Nomad series plus a bonus CD that features unreleased material and a 50 page booklet. ''Our problem isn't a dearth of ideas, but rather a surplus,'' said Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies a couple of years ago and just prior to launching The Nomad Series, an ambitious effort of four CD releases in 18 months. Timmins continues, ''When we were recording The Nomad Series we approached each album as a separate unit, each with its own specific theme or concept. Because we were recording and releasing so much music over so short a period of time, we felt that it was important to keep each album as lean and focused as possible. So at the end of mixing each album we looked at all of the songs that we had finished and decided what didn't work in a final album sequence; or didn't fit the overall concept of the album; what songs were best left off in order to make the whole stronger.''
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Now for The Nomad Series, developed beginning in 2008. The band keeps their roots while exploring exciting new themes in writing and production. For example, Renmin Park was inspired by Michael's experience in China. Demons are the band's cover of significant Vic Chesnutt (RIP) compositions. Sing In My Meadow a somewhat impromptu session of acid-blues (their term). Wilderness inspired by the sensation of being lost in the many wildernesses of our lives.
One issue that strikes me while enjoying this set is the permanence of the band. They've been together since the beginning, and I wonder if The Nomad Series could have been possible without that longevity.
This is a great set of albums, worthy of your consideration. I'm sure glad I purchased it.
Some reviewers have dissed the packaging. My observation is that the booklet is better than the individual cd's (I own 3-of-4) in that the graphics are first-rate. I like the style of the disc storage. (5) CD's can be stored in a space of (2) jewel cases. Just don't remove the tape on the side of the cd trays that hold them secure.
The amount of music you get for a little over 20 bucks is excellent.
The material and performances are really great too.
I think Sing In My Meadow is my favorite because it shows the Junkies can really rock. I think the next favorite disc is demons. They nail "Flirted with you all my life" When I read the songs on Demons I was sad they didn't include one of my favorite Chestnut tunes "Guilty By Association" but then was really happy they included it on the outake disc!
I've been a fan of theirs for years but haven't bought any of their discs since Pale Sun Crescent Moon. This disc has stuff on it that's as strong and well performed as any of their classics and I'm glad I finally got some more of their music!
Check out "3rd Crusade" fantastic.
The songs on the Nomad Series are supposed to be built around a concept, but I don't know what unifies them, because each CD is very much its own recording. And, like all good Cowboy Junkies songs, they fall into just a handful of categories: the wistful, mournful slow strummer, the (relatively) upbeat "rocker" (the Cowboy Junkies can only "rock" so hard, but they all make use of artistic distortion), the wan pop song, the freaky experimental number, and the distinct, characteristic cover song.
The first of the five CDs, "Renmin Park", starts off with some found sounds, Chinese martial music that sounds like Oktoberfest tunes, then some Chinese traditional singing, plucking, park sounds, people hanging out. The first full song, the title track, is a beautiful, wan, wistful mourner that is just Margo's voice and Michael's spare guitar, with later some Chinese fiddle thrown in. Gorgeous. "Sir Fancis Bacon At The Net" is freaky and weird, starting with a very percussive Chinese voice looped, with Margo providing her normal beautiful voice paired with her own ghostly distorted voice. The song is hauntingly freaky, with funky drums and a sliiiiiiding bass dirging things along. "Stranger Here" is a relatively dull song in the poppish vein, nothing special. "A Few Bags Of Grain" moves along nicely with brush drums, a bass line, and a crisp, sweet piano evoking that spooky drunk late night mysticism of weird lights and silence. "I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side" is even stiller and more Cowboy Junkies-like. It also rises up on its hind legs and growls later on with massive waves of feedback-drenched guitar. "(You've Got to Get) A Good Heart" gives great drum madness with swift bass lines, Margo Timmins' voice nearly everywhere. Nice. After a while, though, we get some sort of weird Chinese child counting to eight (yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba), but somehow off-beat to the song. Both are nice, but combined they are... curious... "Cicadas" has more Renmin Park people voice, the sounds of cicadas, and then a nice song about them, a croaking groan from Timmins, echoes with other strange sounds - a spooky, spooky tune. "My Fall" is a beautiful pop song the likes of which you've never heard before... or have heard a million times before. It combines weird Chinese orchestras and modern electronic noise rollings. Heavenly. "Little Dark Heart" is like the type of Cowboy Junkies song we would have heard on albums all these years - the scratchy guitar, the slow beat of the drums, the wail of the fiddle, a bit of burbling organ. Nice. "A Walk In The Park" is a nice song, although it's tough to take as well - it is an absolutely crushingly, stunningly beautiful song, The Cowboy Junkies playing while a Chinese singer makes his song, plays fiddle, and adds sound effects - absolutely, atrociously a piece of art... in the park! Wow!! I mean... sure. Why not? Right? The final song is "Renmin Park (Revisited)", a punning title for a song that re-creates the opening song, albeit with a male singer (I can't figure out who this is, it's not mentioned in the liner notes - I wonder if it's Michael Timmins.
The second album in the collection, Demons, is a collection of covers, all from the doomed Vic Chesnutt (years previous they had sought to nestle under the shaky Townes Van Zandt in his twilight years). The band puts 11 of the covers on this album, while six more went into to the Extras CD ("Old Hotel", "Marathon", "Sad Peter Pan, "Guilty By Association", "Forthright" and "Stay Inside". I've put the Vic Chesnutt originals at the end of this entry.
The Cowboy Junkies tend to amp up the music on their versions, adding in rolling organ, or dripping feedback. The first song, "Wrong Piano," is a very simple guitar song in the Vic Chesnutt version, but the Cowboy Junkies play it with full-on Neil Young "Cowgirl In The Sand"-ish guitar and Band-ish organ, with plenty of instrumental flourishes. In "Flirted With You All My Life", which starts of just as mellow as the original, Margo Timmins doesn't feel the need to change the lyrics "I am a man..." But the song picks up quickly and becomes way blustery, cool acid guitar and burbling guitar rising and ebbing throughout the song. Great! "See You Round", the original Vic Chesnutt version, is all babbling, scratchy vocals and layers of guitar, while the Cowboy Junkies' version sounds like a real band effort, Margo Timmins' expressive and throaty roar lighting up the night, while Chesnutt's hardly lights up a corner of the basement (but hey - it's a voice with tons of character!). The Cowboy Junkies' version is also heavily organ-fuelled. Probably the song with the greatest difference between original and cover is "Betty Lonely", which Chesnutt beats out of a guitar, evenly, with a pack of backup singers (he's learned a thing or two from Leonard Cohen albums) that is also slightly Beatles-esque of the"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "Across the Universe" spooky era, while the Cowboy Junkies begin with a blast of organ that takes them deep into Angelo Badalamenti territory. So both are going where they haven't gone before - great! Vic's "Square Room" starts with a near-whisper, you can really only hear his voice, then a wee wee bit of guitar. His voice no longer sounds jarring, but very nice indeed. Feedback rears its head from time to time, just the right touch. The Cowboy Junkies version starts off like something from the Trinity Sessions, that voice and that acoustic guitar. Wow. Each sy lab ble is strong ly pro nounc ed. "Just a titled alcoholic/waxing bucolic", the words, float over the room, overstated, not like Chesnutt's understated and swallowed. Both songs are nearly equally melancholic. "Ladle" is a bit of electric folk from Vic Chesnutt, great kronky guitar, a bit grungy even nearly (in the vocals, not just the guitar). The Cowboy Junkies version is just as spooky and haunting, with great singing by Margo and some nice backup from a male voice. Vic Chesnutt's "Supernatural" is full of Spanish-sounding guitar, bruising brushes and wiry vocals, the Cowboy Junkies' version is a very faithful adaption with Spanish guitar, and some spooky noises. "West Of Rome" is mainly voice and piano on the original version, when the Cowboy Junkies do it they keep it also very minimal, adding some percussion also. "Strange Language" is a groovy REM-sounding album, the Junkies also cover it pretty faithfully. "We Hovered With Short Wings" is real Angelo Badalametti territory, with a really strange spooky midnight mood of brushes on drums, stand-up bass, and bizarre night noises, Chesnutt's voice nearly inaudible as it comes in, warming up after a few bars. Vic Chesnutt sings it a bit higher than Margo Timmins does, the Cowboy Junkies bringing in instruments not heard in the original, but subtle, always subtle. "When The Bottom Fell Out" is a bit different - the Vic Chesnutt song is just his voice and guitar, the Cowboy Junkies' version starts with a snatch of dialogue from Chesnutt, eventually getting into a full-band The Band-like dirge with full organ and horn section, fleshing the song out quite fully indeed.
The third album, Sing In My Meadows, is an experimental one, the band performing what the call "acid-blues," which has them channeling "Miles at the Isle of Wight deep in his Bitches Brew phase; Captain Beefheart and his Mirror Man psychoses; The Birthday Party live at the Electric Ballroom circa 1981 (Margo, Al and I were in that audience); Neil and Crazy Horse in the back room at SIR... overdriven and thick with electricity." I don't know if they necessarily pull it off; but still, this is probably my favorite of the bunch, because you can really get lost in these songs, with their weird, chunky guitar and zombie beats. The first song, "Continental Drift" opens with pounding drum pattern, it is very heavy, there's hard guitar, a squawking saxophone keeping things Morphine-y, mysterious. The first half of the song is instrumental, then there's singing and surreal lyrics and a freaky, pounding beat. I don't know what continental drift is supposed to be. "It's Heavy Down Here" is a wondrously murky song that fades in, slinks in, totally weirded out, freaky, styley, doom-y even. One minute of fuzz, four minutes of Margo Timmins moaning, with a male voice in the background. Wow. "3rd Crusade" is a bit faster, funkier, there's some sort of keyboard progression, and restrained vocals. "I've been told that you've been bold", swells and ebbs, and a discernible chorus. Nice. "Late Night Radio" is like a pretty regular Cowboy Junkies song, and may have even appeared on the Trinity Sessions in a much slowed-down version. Or maybe there's something of an early REM song about it. Unfortunately, the hypnotic chorus repeats just a few times too often, wearing out its welcome, but the zooming glooming of the guitar, which hovers like some evil firefly, invokes and captures. "Sing In My Meadows" is a fun, sweeping song that seems not just a little bit horny. Launching as it does with wild drums and great guitar wailing, "Hunted" is a wild, insane, frantic song that the band had initially recorded on their Pale Sun Crescent Moon, except that here they really kick out the jams and get outright noisy (and sound way more mature/way less funky than they did in 1993). "A Bride's Price" is a lovely piece of bass and guitar and drum rambling, with Margo's voice twisted and distorted all over the place. The closing song "I Move On" - also the longest track on the disk at just over six minutes - comes off like the bastard brother of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray", in all of its maddened rolling organ-infused chaos, nearly two minutes into the song the lyrics kick up, distorted and foaming at the mouth. Amazing songs, all the more astounding is the thought that they were recorded over only four days.
"The Wilderness", the fourth and final recording in the original series, . The first song "Unanswered Letter (For JB)" is a groovy electric clicker that shaves along zippily, amplifies in parts with subtle, squealing electronics. The song chugs along excellently and in high spirits. "Idle Tales" has some sort of burning piano riff at the beginning that sounds like it's had a bit of the Sigur Ros treatment before the song gets chilly and mellow - acoustic guitar, Margo's sensuous voice, and the occasional power chord, a bit of this and that coming in slowly. A stunningly beautiful number anyone would fall deeply in love with. It is a song of great restraint and endless experimentation - touching and well-balanced (not sure they needed the slight background choir that comes in momentarily at the end, though). "We Are The Selfish One" is mainly voice and acoustic guitar, with a few other flourishes. It's nice, but a bit dull. "Angels In The Wilderness" is duller yet, but it's nice enough; has the stripes of an earnest radio song, perhaps, I dunno. "Damaged From The Start" is similarly nice, simple and dull. "Fairytale" is a pretty tale that seems like it has something to say, with that chopping mandolin that recalls Cowboy Junkies albums past. "Staring Man" has a bit of fiddle in it, giving it the aura of the first real country-ish song of the album. "The Confession of Georgie E" is a beautiful slow song (they seem to all be beautiful slow songs), and "I Let Him In" is absolutely, screamingly dull! "Fart, I Hate The Cold" has the most life of any song on the album, with its big fat chords, its boppy lead guitar, its dramatic vocalizing - it swings and sways and is absolutely, painstakingly, Canadian-ish-ed-ly true!
The extras are good! "My Boy Burns" is spooky as hell, and rises and ebbs the way a good Cowboy Junkies song should. "The Girl Behind The Man Behind The Gun" is an even better song, moody, with moments of thickly distorted guitar spooking things up, and Margo alternating talk-singing with pure wailing. The song speeds up, slows down, goes acoustic, each element of the best Cowboy Junkies songs is present in this song. "Punching Holes Through" is sweet and mysterious with lone high notes, a great beat, sweet sweet beauty like nothing from the past. Achingly great song. You hear this song once and you know it's been close to your soul many times before. Deserves to be immortalized on the soundtrack of a really great movie. "Demons" is a sweet, jumpy number, sung by a male voice, quite a bit different than any of the songs that preceded it. It is also the last Cowboy Junkies song on the collection.
But with only four of the ten songs on the last disc by the Cowboy Junkies and six by Vic Chesnutt, this dis really does also belong to the late singer-songwriter. "Old Hotel" by Vic Chesnutt is simple voice and guitar, the Cowboy Junkies perform it with the full band, but with Margo Timmins' voice sounding like it's been recorded at a distance. After some time big fat distorted guitar comes floating in, momentarily. Great beats, great song. "Marathon" is an awesome-wicked Vic Chesnutt song, sung with voice and guitar and a wee bit of background ambient noise, full on emotion and sensitivity. The Cowboy Junkies' version makes the song sound even sadder, if that's even possible. "Sad Peter Pan" is a nice mellow Vic Chesnutt song, the Cowboy Junkies version is acoustic guitar and voice and clarinet, a beautiful interpretation. The book is pierced by weird sound effects that chop through everything. Lovely. "Guilty By Association" is one of Chesnutt's better-known song, not sure why it's not on the main album, "Demons", this version of Chesnutt's vocal-guitar-strings number is stunning, with its gloomy note-by-note thrummings, accompanied by spooky background ambient noise (soundscapes?), and the now-formulaic Neil Young guitar sound (how did they recreate that?). "Forthright", a beautiful acoustic guitar-voice-brushed drum song that already sounds like a Cowboy Junkies number is played by the Cowboy Junkies with a bit of brioche - that ambient sound, the beautiful bungee bass with the immaculate drum sound, and that haunting Margo Timmins voice, splashes of this guitar sound and that drifting in from time to time - really perfect production by the Meisters. Both versions are very long and lovely. "Stay Inside" is the last song on the series of discs; the Vic Chesnutt version has plenty of backing vocals, some of them by great doo-wop bands, glooming on and on over this chorus-like, affirming tune.
It's just amazing to listen to both versions - the original next to the tribute/cover. What a musical education... I'd never listened to Chesnutt before.
In writing a review of this box set I will not get into reviewing of volumes one through four. I wrote reviews of those individual volumes as they were released. If you would like to read my opinions on the individual volumes just go to each one of the CDs in the series and read them there. I will concentrate instead on reviewing the bonus disc and the packaging which seems to be an issue with some people. First for the fifth CD titled "Extras". As previously mentioned the fifth disc is made up of songs recorded during the making of the "Nomad Series" that didn't make it onto any of the CDs. The problem why these songs did not appear on any of the volumes simple was too many songs written with too little space on the four CDs to include them. And from what I have read it was not always an easy choice of what songs to include on the albums and what had to be left out. I am only guessing at this point was when it was decided to come out with a box set of this series to include a fifth disc of most of the songs that had been left off. I say most of the songs because even with this extra disc, which btw is titled "Extras", not all of the songs that were left off the other CDs in the series still made it onto this disc! That shows just what a creative roll Cowboy Junkies must have been on while they were making the "Nomad Series".
In any event the songs that appear on the "Extras" CD are not in any way throw away songs or songs that were not worthy of being on any of the other CDs. All ten songs on this fifth CD are strong musical contributions. And while some songs may be better then others there is not one single weak or out of place number in the group. To be exact six of these songs were recorded during the production of the second volume "Demons". This was CJs tribute album to their friend and fellow singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt after he had passed away Christmas Day 2009. All of the songs on Volume 2 were written by Chesnutt with the Cowboy Junkies giving their own spin on his music. 11 songs made it onto that album. Six more didn't. Those song instead, "Stay Inside" "Old Hotel" "Marathon" "Forthright" "Sad Peter Pan" and "Guilt By Association", are on "Extras". The other four songs that fill out the CD were recorded while CJ was working on their fourth volume, "Wilderness". All four of these songs were penned by Michael Timmons. One of those songs, "Demons", has Michael himself singing. I love listening to Margo, Michael's sister and lead singer of the group, sing. She has a wonderful voice. But it is nice to hear Michael step in front of the microphone once in a while. He is no threat to take Margo's position away in the group but he has a decent singing voice. As for Margo herself she sounds as great as ever especially on the other three numbers written by Michael, "Girl Behind The Man Behind The Gun" "My Boy Burns" and "Punching Holes Through".
As for the production of this box set the sound quality is first rate with that classic CJ sound and mood that all us fans love. The packaging itself has been a bit of a source of complaint. I will admit it doesn't seem all that sturdy. All I can recommend to do is treat it with kid gloves and maybe consider getting some CD jewel cases to put the CDs in to better protect them. The booklet that comes with this box set is very good including all the lyrics to the songs on all five CDs. With none of the individual volumes you ever got the lyrics for the songs included to follow along while they played. To me including a booklet with the lyrics inside is always a plus to me.
The box set is intended for serious Cowboy Junkies fans to get. If you don't have all the single volumes in the Nomad Series then you may want to consider just getting this set. The big issue is for those who bought all four volumes separately but would like to get the "Extras" CD. Problem is I don't know if this CD has been sold or if they intent to sell that volume separately. If not the only way I know you would be able to find a copy of this CD is to buy the box set. You'll have to decide that one yourself. All in all though this is an excellent box set.