(Make sure to order The Kennedy Suite before Tuesday November 12 in order to get a free copy of composer Scott Garbe's demo. Also make sure to check out the deluxe folder that brother Pete has created…you can check out one of his collages below. The No Depression review can be found here.)
reviewed by Skot Nelson
"Oh Marina, Marina, it’s cold and it’s lonely / When you’re pointing a gun at the President” sings Andy Maize towards the end of the Kennedy Suite on a song originally released by The Skydiggers in 1997. “I’m no flunky with a rifle / I’m an N.R.A. Golden Boy / I’m a Genius Forging a Legend.”
The fifty years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy have seen no shortage of artistic expression dedicated to the memory of Camelot. That assassination had as much impact north of the border as it did in the United States and the latest release ostensibly from Canada's Cowboy Junkies (though it's really a collaboration album) is an ambitious song cycle that chronicles the man and the events of the time.
The album’s fifteen tracks tell the assassination’s story from the perspective of a series of interconnected characters and those stories are told with the help of some of the band’s formidably talented friends: in addition to The Skydiggers, there are guest appearances from Doug Paisley, Lee Harvey Osmond, Reid Jamieson, and Martin Tielli to name a few.
The song’s perspectives vary widely and the musical styles shift with them: the jazzy I Got a Bullet for You captures the conspiracy theory nature of the era with a wide array of guests. Secret Spy Decoder Ring is a straight ahead rocker told from the playful perspective of a child.
The album’s songs unfold along a loose but intertwining timeline. While the first few start early in the day by the time we get to Parkland—not quite half way through the full collection, and told from the perspective of a hospital worker—the President is dead.
We’re gradually moved into post-assassination territory with the poignant Disintegrating (the only song on the album to feature Margo Timmins’ voice at the forefront) and Senior Prom before culminating in the events of the days immediately after the President's death..
Those days lead to one of the album’s finest moments, when Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is given voice by Andy Maize in The Truth About Us, a song that chronicles the American dream and optimistic sentiment of the the times. “Let’s settle up on boot hill / To the view we adore” Maize sings at the song’s start before moving on to a later refrain of “Oh Marina, Marina, it’s cold and it’s lonely / when reporters are carrying your coffin.”
As a concept album, The Kennedy Suite succeeds where other similar efforts might have failed in capturing a historic era. There are no rose coloured glasses here: Slipstream sees Martin Tielli sing about the complex duality of Camelot with lines like “Buy an election / get the girl / while the girls are gone / have more than one” that allude to Kennedy’s numerous affairs. This is followed by news clips covering the assassination of Martin Luther King and making reference to the eventual death of Bobby Kennedy. Camelot may have been sunny, but the Cowboy Junkies are looking in the shadows too.
Highlights on the collection include Lee Harvey Osmond’s Parkland, the Skydiggers’ Truth About Us and Martin Tielli's performance on Slipstream. It really is a collection that should be listened to in full though.
The Kennedy Suite is a rich, complex work that rewards a close listen. Grab this, sit back with a good set of headphones and spend an hour with an album that succeeds on just about every level: it’s a lyrically rich, well constructed, musically versatile tribute to a time when America was the land of hope and glory when, as The Skydiggers put it, “Every girl and boy could grow up to be the President / Or grow up to be the President’s killer.”
The Cowboy Junkies Kennedy Suite can be ordered from Maple Music. The Cowboy Junkies and their friends are performing two shows at Toronto’s Winter Garden theatre on November 22nd (sold out) and 23rd with guests. If you’re in the area, it’s not to be missed. Tickets can be bought from Massey Hall.