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Cowboy Sally Goes a-Wanderin'

On her first solo album in five years, Sally Timms leaves the country behind.

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Larry Sultan's much praised photo series "The Valley" captures actors in between takes at X-rated-film shoots. The centerpiece of the collection is a stark portrait of porn star Sharon Wild: wearing stilettos and a bra and panties, she perches at the end of a stripped bed with a mussed throw, cradling herself and staring into the distance. Something about the expression on her face, neither defiant nor despairing, resonated with Sally Timms.

When it came time for Timms to design the cover for her new album, In the World of Him (Touch and Go)--a suite of songs largely written by men about women--she persuaded Sultan himself to restage the shot with her as the subject. Timms opted, however, to pose in a slip. "There's no way I wanted to put my entire body in its current state on an album cover," the 44-year-old Brit says wryly.

In the World of Him began taking shape when Timms was nearly ten years younger, well before the 1999 release of her last solo record, Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos. Cuts like "Bomb," by her longtime band the Mekons, and Jon Langford's "Sentimental Marching Song" appeared in her solo sets in the mid-90s, and during these shows she'd often accompany herself using an old Yamaha QY10 sequencer. "I've always liked the idea of having these low-grade electronic toys mixing in with other stuff. And I wanted to make a record like that, an oddball folk record," she says.

She began working on an embryonic version of the record with Langford at his home studio in 1998, but the sessions stalled as Timms, who rarely writes her own material, struggled to find suitable songs. "And then it just seemed easier to do something else," she says. "Hence the country record."

Recorded in three days and released by Bloodshot, Twilight Laments featured a set of quaint country covers. "I was surprised how well the record did," Timms says. "I thought it was a little throwaway thing. I'm not ashamed of it--but I never listen to it."

Over the next couple years Timms started and then abandoned work on two more country-themed albums for Bloodshot. "I got halfway through making them and I thought, 'This isn't really me, it's not what I want to do right now,'" she says. The Mekons kept busy, and she made guest appearances on other people's albums. "But I never felt this great urgency to get [the solo record] done until a year ago, at which point I finally had six or seven songs that could form the basis for this album I'd been thinking of."

Timms made a couple of brief efforts at recording the disc with post-rock engineer Casey Rice and Tortoise's Johnny Herndon, "people who were programming things and cutting things up in a way that I thought would be interesting," she says. "But I didn't have enough stuff for them to sink their teeth into." Finally, last March Timms was in London on tour with the Mekons when she ran into offbeat Americana singer Johnny Dowd, a southern-bred trucking-company owner who put out his first record just shy of age 50. The two had previously shared bills, and Timms had become a fan of Dowd's disquieting goth country, which incorporates quirky electronics and other unorthodox instrumentation. When she complained to Dowd about her frustration in trying to realize the skewed folk album she had in mind, he offered up his studio and his band's services.

Beginning last May, Timms made the first of nearly half a dozen pilgrimages to Dowd's studio in Ithaca, New York. The final list of songs she'd decided on suggested both the album's concept and its title. In addition to being written by men, "they were all songs . . . where men are basically talking about what they do or explaining themselves to women," she says. Aside from the material by Langford and the Mekons and a tune of her own, "Little Tommy Tucker," Timms covers Brit singer-songwriter Kevin Coyne's "I'm Just a Man," Ryan Adams's "The Fools We Are as Men," Mark Eitzel's "God's Eternal Love," Sean Garrison's "High Dosage," and Dowd's "139 Hermansler Gurtel."

"The minute I heard those songs I went, 'OK, that's for me,'" Timms says. "I'm pretty good at finding things that work. It has to be pretty dramatic lyrically and move at a certain pace." On In the World of Him that pace tends to be funereal. Dowd's band summons up a grim march for most of the tracks, deploying a small arsenal of spooky samples and stabbing synth lines.

Timms finished up the basic tracking with Dowd last fall, completed vocals at Western Soundlabs and Kingsize studios in Chicago, then went back to Ithaca to finalize the mix. "I spent more time working on this record than anything else I've done," she says.

Her longtime collaborator Langford, on the other hand, spent far less time on it than on her previous projects--his sole contribution is a brief spoken-word passage at the end of "Corporal Chalkie." "In the past it was very easy for me to sit back and let someone else do all the work, and a lot of times that's been Jon," Timms says. "This is the first record where I actually took responsibility for it."

Her efforts pay off. A dark and richly textured affair, the album is filled with blues laments and streams of unsettling imagery delivered in a sometimes ghostly, sometimes menacing soprano.

"With the Cowboy Sally album I wanted to make a really pretty record that people would enjoy listening to, because that's where my head was at," she says. "This time I was more pissed, and I wanted to make one that people wouldn't enjoy listening to."

In the last few years Timms has been through a series of personal upheavals. After she separated from her husband, former Trenchmouth drummer and current Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen, both of her parents died within a few months of each other. "Those were some pretty cataclysmic things that happened in my life," she says. "And the truth is, I was incredibly depressed. Looking back on it, I think I'm just now coming out of what was a four- or five-year severe depression--all of which probably came out in this album."

Timms plans to hit the road in support of the record in November and December. She'll coheadline the shows with Dowd and his band, who'll also back her. In the meantime, she already has the concept and cover photo lined up for her next album: "It's going to be an avant-garde dub record called 'Great Big Viking Woman,'" she says, grinning. "And the cover photo is going to be me in a Viking outfit and helmet with horns on it. I'll be a lot more comfortable in that than in my underwear."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Larry Sultan.

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