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Timms tells of her laments

By Brian Steinberg, November 1999

Sally Timms has been up all night. "I'm still on that alcohol high," she says over the phone. You know the place - that balancing point between a pleasant buzz and a crushing hangover. The lesson here, perhaps, is that one shouldn't go to see Blue Rodeo at a local Chicago area hangout when one has a concert of her own coming up the very next night.

Ah, well. Sally Timms is not known for sticking to the straight path.

Take her new album, "Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments For Lost Buckaroos." It's downright, well, pretty. And that's just the effect this current member of The Mekons, the English pub rats known for their loose-limbed brawling sound, wanted.

"I just wanted to make a record that was very pretty," she says. "I wanted it to be light and playful."

That it is. Timms' folksy effort includes a Robbie Fulks tune, "In Bristol Town One Bright Day," that wouldn't sound out of place around a campfire, or on an English street corner as night begins to fall.

The light, airy antics start off with "Dreaming Cowboy," run into the ethereal "Sweetheart Waltz," include a slowed-down version of Johnny Cash's "Cry Cry Cry" and a piece with lyrics written by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy ("It was pretty easy. He just gave me the track. I haven't ever sat down and played with him," she says. "It's a moot point. People seem to think he played on this record, but I can't say if he did or not. I like the idea of the mystery.")

The record is sweet and atmospheric, boozy and lurchy - the perfect sound for that time of night when you're back from the bars and want to crash in a heap of pillows and blankets.

"My initial intent was just to do something that was kind of unashamedly pretty, and I'm kind of pleased with the way it came out," she says. "It's like a light theatrical piece, but to other people it's probably quite different."

"It's an acoustic record, but we didn't use a lot of standard country instrumentation. We used steel drums and odd percussions."

Timms also says this new record represents a new achievement: she did most of the work herself.

"I think it's more rounded,' she says. "A lot of my earlier stuff was very reliant on the hard work of other people...because I'm extremely lazy."

Fellow Mekon and current Waco Brother Jon Langford has always been a help, she says, and in fact, two songs on "Cowboy Sally" are written by Timms and Langford.

Still, she says, "this is more my work. I chose the songs. I basically chose the kind of instrumentation and guided people with how I wanted it to sound. A lot of it is my ideas. I was just very lucky to work with people who are very good. Even the artwork came together very nicely in a way I didn't expect."

Some may be surprised by the lightness of "Cowboy Sally's " songs. After all, the album is sparse on the percussion. "There's a drunken feel to it. It swings around, and it's loose," Timms says of the collection. "That was the idea - not to use drums, except for a couple of tracks."

In fact, part of the decision might be to keep live performances to a dull roar. "Everything has to go up so many notches in volume" when one uses drums live, she says. "I just felt it wasn't very necessary. It's got a much more fluid feel, and overly country records don't have much drums, but I made that connection later on."

Economics might also have played a role. Timms says she was working with a budget of about $4,000. "We have to be pretty fast," she says, but that's a dynamic she's used to dealing with. With many Mekons discs, after all, "we work extremely fast, leaving in the anomalies. Those things may not be perfect, but they make it interesting."

The same might be said of her musical career. Timms was born in Leeds, England, where she sang in the church choir. At 20, she met up with a bunch of arty punk bands taking root in the area, including The Mekons and Gang of Four. In 1980, she made her first album, an avant-garde score for a non-existent film called "Hangahar."

She continued to make music throughout the early '80's, releasing two EP's and her second album, "Somebody's Rocking My Dreamboat." She also began singing occasionally with The Mekons, a band that has been persevering in the punk and roots-rock words since 1979. Timms has also continued to make solo recordings. Her last, "To The Land Of Milk And Honey," was released in 1994.

Despite the lullabies and sweetness filling her latest effort, Timms isn't about to drift off anywhere. The Mekons have recorded a new album, she says, which should be out in March. And besides, "you only get out of The Mekons in a box. It just keeps going. It really has a life of its own."

Timms had been out touring with the Freakwater in order to support her latest work, but she believes she will have to go out again. West Coast and midwestern dates are inevitable, she says, but "I'm reliant on the kindness of strangers, so I'll have to see if any more successful bands will take me out with them."

If they do, get ready for a woozy take on tradition that may well leave you lightheaded and feeling free.