Pop music can be a fast and furious treadmill, but the ride of the Cowboy Junkies would make even the Pony Express exhausted. Eighteen months ago they were a quartet from Toronto with two low-key albums under their belt. The second, The Trinity Session, with its ghostly rearrangements of country ballads, was about to be released in the U.S. by RCA, which expected the record to sell no more than a paltry 100,000 copies. J Faster than you could say ''kudos,'' though, American rock critics took the record to heart (it won the Los Angeles Times' critics' poll as best album of 1988), the group temporarily expanded to seven members for a tour that started in smoke-filled clubs and ended up in prestigious concert halls, the record went gold, and Margo Timmins, the band's sultry lead singer, became a media darling. Then came phase two: A critics' backlash set in, the follow-up to The Trinity Session was recorded but shelved, and another album (The Caution Horses, in stores this week) was made.
Such dizzying ups and downs aren't unusual in the hype-a-second entertainment world; in the '80s, the life cycle of a meteoric pop group rarely seemed to be more than a year. Remember the Dream Academy? Swing Out Sister? Men at Work?
But the Cowboy Junkies' story is different. It's the tale of a non-mainstream, independent-label band that, through no fault of its own, found itself caught up in an onslaught of unexpected hosannas and raised expectations. The saga has a potentially happy ending; the band seems to have emerged unscathed by it all and is determined not to be thrown by the response to the new album and tour. But like a can of soda spilling over, will the Cowboy Junkies continue to fizzle or will they go flat? As Margo Timmins says, ''Being called the 'coolest band in the world' it's hard to live up to something as ridiculous as that.''
What got the Cowboy Junkies into this mess was a simple idea from Toronto record producer Peter Moore, who had heard about the band's atmospheric reworkings of country ann blues standards. He met the group (siblings Margo, Michael, and Peter of the nearby Timmins family and Alan Anton), liked what he heard, and produced its first album, 1986's blues-oriented Whites Off Earth Now!!, recorded in the Timminses' garage.
To enhance the spacy, ethereal quality of the Junkies' sound, Moore then suggested they record their next album in Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity, where he'd worked with orchestras on soundtrack scores. So, over the course of one very long day in November 1987, Moore, the band, and several local folk musicians rearranged some pews in the back of the church, gathered around a Calrec Ambisonic microphone, and recorded the entire album live to tape, with no overdubs. The final cost was $162: $125 for renting the church, a $20 tip for the caretaker, and $17 for pizza.
''That day was a magical day,'' recalls Margo, 29. ''It's still the best day of my life, and probably always will be. It was November, a yucky kind of day, and inside something magical was happening. Everybody who was a part of it knew that.''
The band's modus operandi, devised by guitarist-songwriter Michael Timmins, 30, and captured perfectly on the resulting tape, was simple, if a bit gimmicky. Take a slew of standards, from Hank Williams' ''I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'' to Lou Reed's ''Sweet Jane,'' and turn them into dirgelike, desert-dry death ballads highlighting sparse arrangements and Margo's hushed, nearly catatonic voice. Like the best country music, it reaffirmed that no matter what situation you're in, life can be a frustrating, depressing experience. Combine that with limited distribution (like Whites, it was released on the band's own label), and the phrase ''Top 40 smash'' didn't come to mind.