Two years ago, when Cowboy Junkies sounded so sensitive and new, it was easy to forget that they're not really an eight-member band. No one cared that really they're a four-member band voice, guitar, bass, and drums joined by four additional musicians, who play the more evocative instruments: accordion, fiddle, harmonica, mandolin, and of course the slipping, sliding pedal steel guitar.
This year, the distinction might matter. The songs on the band's first major-label album, The Trinity Session, were gripping in themselves, largely because most of them were rock, blues, and country classics. But most of the songs on The Caution Horses were written by Michael Timmins, the core guitarist, and as a collection they seem pretty blank. Suddenly those extra instruments become the main reason for listening. You find yourself waiting for the voice to stop, waiting for the accordion and mandolin to rise up and crest in what sounds almost like tears as they fill the space between the singer's lines.
It doesn't help that Margo Timmins' vocals sound like a changeless thin fog. ''It's the kind of night thht's so cold, your spit freezes before it hits the ground,'' she sings in '''Cause Cheap Is How I Feel.'' She's painting details on what ought to be yet another gritty landscape of lost or unsatisfied love. But her words hardly register.
Could it be that she's just more wildly romantic than most of these newer songs allow? One of them, ''Witches,'' is almost absurdly theatrical: ''There are witches in the hills calling my name... 'Come dance in the moonbeams, ride the night winds.''' And yet Timmins, singing nearly in a whisper, gives the song a scary edge. Cowboy Junkies the full eight-person aggregate haven't altogether lost their sometimes glowing, sometimes chilling touch. But the core quartet may have turned away from the otherworldly fire that once seemed to inspire them. B-