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Positive Feedback ISSUE 51
september/october 2010

music

 

Trinity Revisited: The Cowboy Junkies Reinterpret A Classic Performance and Aggrandize It, Literally
by Andy Schaub

 

Trinity Revisited

"Our goal was not to re-do The Trinity Session, but to re-interpret it." – Cowboy Junkies, http://www.trinityrevisited.com/ (under "About")

I first heard about The Trinity Session when I was 31. It was in a list of records sent out by Sweet Thunder Records in Victoria, British Columbia who specialized in jazz but felt this record sounded so good they should stock it. I had heard about it, indirectly, from a colleague who said Margo Timmins voice could take a cheery day and make you want to commit suicide it was so sad. I had no interest in committing suicide but I was very curious to hear a record and a singer that could do that, and Sweet Thunder was one of the few places that you could still get vinyl at that time, and I wanted it on vinyl; but they had long since sold out and didn't know if anymore would be coming in… ever.

Fast forward a couple of years and I am traveling in the UK on business, stopping in London for the weekend to see a play, try a Cuban cigar and buy some records; in a small, mainstream vinyl department (I think it was the Tower Records in "downtown" London), I found two Cowboy Junkies vinyl records, Whites Off Earth Now, a title that still befuddles me, and The Caution Horses, which I really liked a lot ('cause cheap was how I felt). Fast forward even farther and I am living with my CF/IDS (Chronic Fatigue/Immune Dysfunction Syndrome) suffering girlfriend Robin; I have an SME Model 30 turntable (the original one, which was better) with an SME IV.Vi tonearm and a Spectral (i.e., Lyra) MCR IIb phono cartridge and an all Spectral system with MIT cabling (of course) and a pair of heavily modified Quad ESL-63 USA Monitors sitting on custom painted black Crosby stands all supplied by—you guessed it—The Audible Difference and Nick Gowan (now at his own shop, True Sound in Campbell, CA).

I also have – from someplace I do not remember—an RCA vinyl copy of The Trinity Session and I am listening to it and enjoying it and appreciating that it is not Margo's voice that makes you want to commit suicide but Michael Timmins lyrics, the beauty of Margo's voice being the aural antidepressant that you need to keep from offing yourself. At one point, I started playing the LP—recorded with a single Ambisonic microphone with Margo singing into an amplifier to bring the level of her voice up to that of the instruments—to a famous but anonymous cartridge designer who insisted that I stop about 3 bars in because he/she/it couldn't stand the sound, ironic in that "Trinity" was often used to evaluate this person's phono cartridges; of course, we agreed to disagree on the quality of the sound.

Forget the millions of times that I played this phono album, forget how many different versions of it I tried to find (including, successfully, the elusive Classic Records gold CD that usually goes for around $300 but I got for less), forget how much equipment I evaluated with "Mining for Gold" and "Misguided Angel" not to mention the Junkies' cover of "Sweet Jane", just forget about all of it but do remember the many friends I know who shared my passion for the group, including my very good friend Laurie who took me to a Junkies concert in Chicago as a present and the tedium as the band moved from their folk rock/alt country roots to pretty much everything else you can imagine until they finally came sort of back around to Michael's manic-depressive songwriting (this is NOT a joke about Bipolar Disorder, it's literally the only way I know to describe how Michael's work can simultaneously make you joyful and despondent). Finally new vinyl emerges and, about a year ago, maybe slightly more, we have Trinity Revisited, which is a re-performance (but not a Zenph (TM) "Reperformance") of the original album commemorating the original performance 20 years earlier with guest artists such as Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams and Vic Chesnutt (borrowed those names from Wikipedia but only did so to get the spelling right). Jeff Bird, the "Fifth Beatle" of the Junkies, also appears.

So what was my initial reaction? Well, I was astounded. It is truly an amazing album. For all the laurels the original Trinity Session earned, "Trinity Revisited" deserves twice as many. And I do believe that that doubting cartridge designer would have NO problems with the sound quality of Trinity Revisited. It is obviously an extremely well engineered album; and when the second track of the CD ("Misguided Angel")—played through my office stereo system from an Apple Lossless copy in iTunes—starts to bring up the bass, my Essex 12" subwoofer responds with aplomb. So my question is, "Why haven't more people noticed this album?" For Pete's sake, the vinyl is still available on Amazon (although it appears that only one copy is available and it's actually being sold indirectly from Acoustic Sounds).

On the Trinity Revisited website (http://www.trinityrevisited.com/) it says, "The recording of The Trinity Session was a momentous occasion in, not only, our bands life, but also, our individual lives. The day that the album was recorded, we walked out of the church feeling that we had just participated in something that was much greater than the sum of its parts." That's the definition of synergy, and even more synergy occurs when Margo Timmins and Natalie Merchant sing "Misguided Angel" together; it is as if Margo is covering her own song, not just re-performing it, with a friend, there being a slight warble to Natalie Merchant's voice reminiscent of her first solo album, "Tigerlily". So it is kind of a blast to the past for both of them. I can particularly hear those vocal qualities on my office stereo system, where my modified Micropure CZ310ES's use silver internal wiring, Murata super tweeters as tweeters, taut midrange drivers as woofers and a 12" Essex SW2 [sub]woofer provides all the bass foundation I could want giving me a sort of "Quad ESL with bass" experience as I am sitting at my desk.

And what about the DVD? You can buy a CD and DVD together. I watched some—not all—of the DVD because I didn't find it very engaging. It was basically a document of the recording with a lot of "waiting" (instruments being moved around, etc.) cut out and a lot of backlighting and vignetting added to give the performers, church and most especially Margo a "holy" or "angelic" look, not in a religious sense but just in the sense that this was happening (i.e., the recording was being made) inside a church and there was a kind of rarified atmosphere in the same sense that the original "Trinity" (*) recording had a rarified sound, due to that single Ambisonic microphone, and they wanted to create the visual equivalent. And, if I had a 52" plasma HDTV on one of those custom wide stands or cabinets you can get at Ikea or from the Audio Advisor with 5 (or 7).1 channel sound including a prodigious subwoofer, I might have gotten more out of it; but I just have a 40" LCD HDTV with nothing but my HDTV speakers (I'm NOT a videophile) and their simple, "cinéma vérité with a tripod" approach didn't do it for me; and the editing was about on par with the videotapes I made in film school at Northwestern University 27 years ago. So it is an interesting documentary for historical reasons, but just buy the vinyl and the CD (which has a few extra tracks) and forget about the DVD unless—like me—you just have to have everything related to the original or second Trinity Session. And if you have the Simply Vinyl copy of the original performance, please feel free to write to me through the magazine! (I am grinning now.)

So, bearing in mind that it's mostly about the music, how I would I summarize Trinity Revisited? Well, put simply, performances like "Misguided Angel" with Margo and Natalie on Trinity Revisited form a precipitate which is a concentration of the same song on The Trinity Session that has the level of intensity found in a single drop of elderberry juice distilled from the essence of 1000 individual elderberries all compressed together and, as if the elderberry juice was allowed to ferment, forms a powerful intoxicant that leaves you stunned and breathless.

Kindest regards,

Andy

(*) Both recordings were made at Toronto's Church of the Holy TRINITY, probably originally because it was a cheap or free, acoustically acceptable performance space; remember they just used one microphone on the original, unlike the re-performance, which had cables and microphones everywhere.

NOTE: As a second footnote of sorts, I would like to say—and I will discuss this in a lot more depth in my "gamma" article on building a digital music server—that I have never meant to suggest that a digital music server or "hard drive-based system" sounds BETTER than the average CD; quite the opposite. I still think computer audio has a long way to go and I have a really good CD transport, S/PDIF cable and Audio Note DAC that I use as my digital point of reference. It's just that I think that—for cost and marketing reasons—that CD's will eventually go away and we'll have (a) vinyl and (b) high-resolution downloads, where "high" means at least 16/44.1 but preferably higher; but please don't call any of the companies or vendors I've mentioned on this list and start asking them detailed questions about what DAC to get to go with, say, an Asus Bamboo laptop. Just send email to me through PFO and I will try to answer our questions as best I can; or, better yet, continue to read PFO and look for reviews of many different kinds of USB and FireWire based DAC's or USB/FireWire-to-S/PDIF converters. Thanks for that!

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