Renmin Park, the first of four concept albums in the Cowboy Junkies “Nomad” series, is based on songwriter/guitarist Michael Timmins’ visit to China. He and his family adopted two Chinese children, and spent time taking in the culture and music of the country. The title refers to a public park in Zhengzhou, a city in the Henan province.
The Cowboy Junkie’s signature bluesy alt-folk sound blends with lyrics about everyday life and history of China. The album’s intro veers from sounds of a parade into the acoustic title track. Michael’s sister, Margo Timmins, lends pensive vocals to bring the lyrics, a description of daily activities in “Renmin Park” to life. There are unusual sound bits through the entire CD. The improbably titled “Sir Francis Bacon at the Net” has snippets of a badminton game underscoring Michael Timmins’ psychedelic-flavored but-folky vocals. “A Few Bags of Grain” is a world-weary tale of man recently released from a labor camp and his introduction to “A world gone insane.”
Hazy, sparse keyboards and a judiciously-used string quartet, add the finishing touch to this ambient slice of alt-rock meets Chinese culture. Renmin Park is nice to listen to in small increments, but it’s got that bluesy introspection and the backdrop of Chinese oppression and change don’t make for a toe-tapping time. The downbeat mood does change with “Stranger Here”. It has a hummable melody that would fit right in beside any mainstream rock tune. The lyrics describe a man’s spiritual struggle, “And I could tell you about the evening/that I was out drinking/and fell asleep by the well/I am the righteous man/the one you’re looking for/I am a stranger here”
Renmin Park features a reworking of two Chinese pop song. Composer Xu Wei’s tale of long-distance heartbreak. The lilting “My Fall” translates well into the Junkies’misty, melancholy style. Zuoxiao Zuzhou ‘s “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” combines haunting piano work throughout, a hint of native Chinese instrumentation, and a crescendo of electric guitar near the end to portray a tale of intrigue and murder. “Little Dark Heart “is a lullaby to loneliness, beginning with the lyrics “It’s a funny start / but I have no home / I have no name / I have no one / Except this little dark heart.” In the hands of a less accomplished band, it would be sorrowful overkill, but the Timmons siblings make it work. The confident strut of “(You’ve Got to Get) a Good Heart” provides a respite from Renmin Park’s mostly pensive tunes for 4 minutes and 27 seconds.
A musical journey to China that meshes well with the Cowboy Junkie’s normal modus operandi, Renmin Park is one of the band’s most ambitious projects to date.