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Cowboy Junkies Mix Smart Lyrics With Moody Melodies

SOME bands win recognition with two smash hits and a cloud of hype. Others quietly pump out record after cutting-edge record in total obscurity. The Cowboy Junkies have struck a balance.

The signs of marketing are unmistakeable: Mainstream radio stations have granted this foursome from Toronto occasional airplay, and most every record store in North America carries the group's latest release, ``Pale Sun, Crescent Moon,'' (and perhaps a poster on the wall, courtesy of RCA Records).

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But above all else, the Cowboy Junkies are hooked on understatement.

In concert at Boston's Avalon nightclub recently, the band played its intriguing blend of rock, folk, country, and blues in a mellow set laced with modesty. Aside from several self-effacing anecdotes by vocalist Margo Timmins, the tunes did the talking.

The band's producer, songwriter, and guitarist Michael Timmins sat at the far corner of the cramped stage throughout the concert, invisible to nearly half the audience. And after a three-song encore, the band walked off abruptly with nothing more than a few timid waves to the appreciative crowd.

Perhaps the Junkies are only serious about music and find the acclaim and applause superfluous, or maybe they're just plain shy. Either way, the music wins.

First plaudits for ``Pale Sun, Crescent Moon'' go to Margo Timmins. The tall, dark, and soft-spoken soprano is Geena Davis without the six-shooter. Her shyness - at times she sings with her back to the audience - validates her dreamy stage presence and the longing tone of her vocals.

While Timmins shows she can belt it out on hard-edged songs like ``The Hunted'' and ``First Recollection,'' her voice is at its best when her brothers, Michael on guitar and Pete on drums, aren't drowning out its subtleties.

Her performances on ``Ring on the Sill,'' ``Crescent Moon,'' and ``White Sail,'' are the luminous highlights of their newest album. Radio stations seem to favor ``Anniversary Song,'' the brightest, most upbeat ditty on the CD.

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But the backbone of the Cowboy Junkies is the songwriting acumen of Michael Timmins. His mood-evoking melodies and sophisticated lyrics have reached a new summit with ``Pale Sun, Crescent Moon.'' Perhaps it's no accident: Timmins based two songs on snippets of text from the works of novelists William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In ``Ring on the Sill,'' a song about a couple mourning the approach of winter, he writes: ``She's thinking of the siege to come/ and how she'll miss those weekends/ in the park with the sun on her face/ and her book by her side and that/ lingering taste....''

In the same song, he puts together a complicated syllabic challenge that his sister performs effortlessly: ``He's remembering the first time he kissed her/ and how he'd wake/ and immediately he'd miss her.'' The lyrics and musical arrangements reflect exhaustive attention to detail, a characteristic that underlies the body of the group's four releases.

BE warned, however, that if you look for them in a record store, they might be lurking under different categories. The group's first CD, ``Whites of Earth Now!'' could be in the alternative section, while their fabulous penultimate disc, ``Black-Eyed Man,'' might be hiding out on the folk or country racks. With its grinding guitar licks, ``Pale Sun, Crescent Moon'' will probably land squarely in the rock department.

Nevertheless, two things hold constant: the sumptuous vocal style of Margo Timmins, and the meticulous craftsmanship that make the Cowboy Junkies an intelligent influence on modern music.

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