Album of the Week, August 17: Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos by Sally Timms

CowboySallySally Timms was born in Leeds, in England, in 1959. She began her recording career young, collaborating with Buzzcock Pete Shelley on an improvisational film score at the age of 19. After a stint in a band called the Shee Hees, she joined pioneering post-punk band the Mekons in 1985 as they began their most fertile, alt-country period. Given that band’s sporadic recording career — complicated by founder and guitarist Jon Langford’s many side projects — Timms has maintained a parallel solo career. She released albums in 1988 and 1995, mixing original tracks with cleverly chosen covers. Those discs included some solo development of the country side of the Mekons. In 1998, she moved to Bloodshot records and assumed the persona of Cowboy Sally, recording a charming, eponymous EP. Building on that work, she launched her masterpiece, the quirky, heartfelt country exploration of Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos.

Title Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos
Act Sally Timms
Label Bloodshot Release Date November 2, 1999
Producer Sally Timms and Jon Langford with Dave Trumfio
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Dreaming Cowboy
  2. The Sad Milkman
  3. Dark Sun
  4. In Bristol Town One Bright Day
  5. Sweetheart Waltz
  6. Snowbird
  7. Cry Cry Cry
  8. When the Roses Bloom Again
  9. Cancion Para Mi Padre
  10. Rock Me to Sleep

In case the title wasn’t a sufficient clue about Timms’ intent, the disc opens with a faux broadcast (complete with dial noise) introducing songs like a 50s country radio program. The ten tracks map out a wonderful range of country sounds — originals and well-chose covers — that demonstrate her fascination and admiration for the genre as well as her own distinctive approach. Ably abetted by fellow Mekon Jon Langford, Wilco producer and frequent Timms sideman Dave Trumfio, and a solid cast of musicians, Timms spins 35 minutes of musical wonder.

She kicks thing off nicely with Dreaming Cowboy, a Guy Lawrence song that mixes the dream state between a nostalgic cowboy and someone who wishes he was an old-time cowboy. The music could be vintage 40s country with just a bit more edge and Timms’ vocals are perfectly ethereal. The Sad Milkman was penned by alt-country pioneers Brett and Rennie Sparks, better known as the Handsome Family. It continues the otherworldly elements of the previous dream, telling the story of a man “in love with the moon.” Timms delivers a matter-of-fact vocal that makes the sad story plausible and human. Up next is the eerie Dark Sun, which warns of nuclear devastation, invoking  the spectre of Doctor Strangelove and his bombs. Co-written by Timms and Langford, it’s a perfect marriage of millennial anxiety and galloping old-west music and one of the finest moments on the album.

Robbie Fulks, another fixture in the alternative circuit, provides In Bristol Town One Bright Day. It’s a standard ballad of lust and betrayal with a dark, menacing undercurrent. Timms imbues the track’s mysterious stranger with exactly the right mix of eerieness and realism as the bright day takes a dark turn. Sweetheart Waltz, another Timms/Langford turn, is a sorrowful 3/4 lament. The minor key underscores the sorrow while a strangely apt steel drum lends a stirring note of poignant near hope. Snowbird is a perfect capsule of a song, 90 seconds of Handsome Family death ballad. Picking up the pace after two slower songs, it romps through a tragic story with Timms turning in one of her nicest vocals.

Proving the sincerity of her love of country music, Timms tackles a legend by covering Cry! Cry! Cry! Penned and sung by Johnny Cash, it was intended as the B-side of his first Sun single but became his first hit when DJs flipped the record over.  Timms turns in a remarkable vocal that echoes Cash with surprising success given the differences in their range and style. It’s a wonderful cover that bridges homage and originality with enthusiasm and respect. When the Roses Bloom Again is a traditional song arranged by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. It’s another ballad song with themes of death and hope, well suited to this set of twilight laments. Cancion Para Mi Padre is a bilingual track written by Timms and Langford. It brings in another aspect of country and works surprisingly well.

Rock Me to Sleep is a wonderful lullaby to oneself, a brilliant, beautiful gem of a song that closes the album on a very high note. Written by sadly overlooked indie singer Jill Solbule in collaboration with her frequent musical partner, ex-Bongo Richard Barone, it’s the most alt and least country of the songs. Timms’ sensitive delivery and the band’s seamless backing, however, make it work, and it emphasizes the twilight lament element just as well as the opening track gave listeners the lost buckaroo. After this wonderful treat, another faux broadcast wishes Cowboy Sally and her listeners goodnight, bringing things to a perfect close.

Some editions of the album include the five-track Cowboy Sally EP. While it’s a shame to tack anything on to the end of such a cohesive, carefully planned set, the songs are very well suited to the album’s style and themes. The highlight is the Handsome Family cover Drunk By Noon. The rest are nice versions of some lesser known country gems and a lovingly wistful interpretation of the Tennessee Waltz. Sequencing aside, grabbing the 15-track disc captures Timms at her musical best.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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