Category Archives: townes van zandt

Steve Von Till, Wino, Scott Kelly – Songs of Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt is said to have been embarrassed when Steve Earle proclaimed him to be ‘the best songwriter in the whole world’ and threatened to clamber up on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and tell him so. Such potent soundbites don’t disappear, though, and this one is wheeled out to accompany every new piece of Van Zandt – related merchandise. And right enough: as a songwriter, Van Zandt gives anyone a run for their money. In a genre that’s saturated with wounded troubadours, few have come close to capturing their grief and that of those around them as effectively and tunefully as he. As a recording artist, however, Van Zandt often paled in comparison to his more celebrated peer.

He was a reluctant presence in the studio and producers frequently struggled to capture his personality on record. No doubt at label behests to make his work more marketable, many of his albums were over-produced: laden with schmalzy strings and polished to a high sheen that simply didn’t belong. It’s why the terrible jokes and nervous laughter on Live at the Old Quarterand Live at McCabe’s are so integral to his legacy. The spit and sawdust setting, the simple yet skilful arrangements and the relaxed, unceremonious atmosphere placed Van Zandt firmly in his element.

To set out to record a full album of Townes Van Zandt cover songs, then, is something of a poisoned chalice. In reworking the songs, you risk making the same mistakes as his producers of yore, whose unwillingness to leave well alone arguably damaged the material itself (many of the most famous Van Zandt covers fall heavily into this territory). On the other hand, the requirement for a set of faithfully recorded updates is negligible.

Scott KellySteve Von Till and Wino, who have teamed up for Songs of Townes Van Zandt, have chosen to stick rather than twist. The trio of metallers have recorded three tracks apiece and for the most part, have eschewed frills, keeping things simple, tasteful and palatable. The problem is: anybody who is already familiar with the material will struggle to find a reason to return to this record.

Perhaps inevitably, none of the covers improve on the original, and only a few offer a viable alternative. Returning to the Dylan analogy, neither he nor Van Zandt could be classed as technically great singers, but both possessed hugely effective voices that are and were (naturally) perfectly suited to their own material. While Kelly, Von Till and Wino each has their own distinct delivery, they all fall short of capturing the emotional punch the songs demand.

Take Scott Kelly’s contribution. The Neurosis singer and guitarist has chosen three of Van Zandt’s most celebrated songs: ‘St. John the Gambler’, ‘Lungs’ and ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and in each case has attempted to make the track darker, mainly by slowing the pace and adding a tiny bit of drone-ish guitar. But tracks like these require little assistance: they’re already dark enough. His take on ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and ‘St. John the Gambler’ (both lifted from what was arguably Van Zandt’s finest studio hour, Our Mother the Mountain) come across as heavy handed – his growl becoming increasingly grating the more you listen to both.

His bandmate Steve Von Till fares better. His rendition of ‘If I Needed You’ betters covers of the same track by names as prestigious as Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett. It’s as plain and bare as Van Zandt would’ve intended and is by some distance the best song on the record. His other offerings, however, are less memorable, with ‘Snake Song’ in particular struggling under the weight of some dodgy sound effects, which swim against the stylistic tide of the rest of the album.

In the sleeve notes, Van Zandt’s bass player Wrecks Bell commends the trio for taking ‘possession from the first note’, a statement that couldn’t be further than the truth. Instead,Songs… is reminiscent of an earnest pub-cover. It sounds fine on the surface and for a while, you might find yourself tapping your toe and humming in time. When you come out the other side, though, it’s forgotten. Neurosis or Wino disciples aside, it’s difficult to see a place for this in anyone’s collection.

Written for Drowned in Sound

My Most Listened to Albums of This Year Are…

1. The National – High Violet
2. Deer Tick – War Elephant
3. Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden Of Lady Walton
4. Galaxie 500 – On Fire
5. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
6. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
7. Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther
8. Townes Van Zandt – Anthology
9. Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead
10. Real Estate – Real Estate

Okay, this is a pretty strange list. I admit, it’s also pretty inaccurate. It’s aggregated using Last FM and is based on the tracks scrobbled from each album. Thing is, this year I’ve been listening to a hell of a lot of music on Spotify, not to mention on my mp3 player. Honestly though, The National’s new album is undoubtedly the one I’ve listened to the most. If it were to include everything else, I think you’d find some Jo Newsom, Kath Bloom and David Thomas Broughton.

It would be interesting to hear what other people have been listening to the most?

S&B Spotify Playlist: February 2010

From here on in, I’m going to put a playlist on my blog each month which everyone can listen to for free. For this month (and probably next month) it will be on Spotify. After that, I will put it up in the form of mp3s. I am moving to South Korea shortly. They don’t have Spotify there, but they do have 100meg broadband.

It’s not got a lot of new music on it, but stuff I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Some of it, I’m surprised by! For example, since hearing The Winter Of Mixed Drinks a couple of months back, I’ve gone back to listening to Sing The Greys quite a lot. I really like Frightened Rabbit’s new album but don’t necessarily think it’s a logical successor to Midnight Organ Fight. I think there’s as much of their debut set in there as MOF. Anyway, three amazing albums and Music Now is a great track.

Over the past six months I’ve been rifling through Jason Molina’s creative catalogue. I think the guy is a genius. His work as Songs: Ohia is his best and The Electric Magnolia Co is his best album. So understated, effortless and simple. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy comparisons may have been slightly more apt on, say, Ghost Tropic, but with this album he steps out of that shadow and slips comfortably into his own skin. Funny how I’m only picking up on this seven years after the album’s release.

There are quite a few Scottish acts on there… inevitably I guess. Since leaving Edinburgh I’ve trying my best to keep up with what’s been going on. The Withered Hand album, Good News, from last year is one of the best I’ve heard in a long, long time. I’m sorry I’ve never had a chance to see the guy live. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to getting around to his debut. Ardentjohn have a new album out which has been received positively, which I’m happy about.

The Drever, McCusker, Woomble album is one I got my hands on last year, but it’s only been this year that I’ve given it sufficient attention. It really is something else. December saw Idlewild’s 100 Broken Windows voted The Skinny’s Scottish Album of the Decade, but it’s amazing how he has diversified himself over the past few years. Before The Ruin is simply gorgeous. Stripped back, rootsy folk songs, beautifully song, lovingly written and played.

The other tracks are gathered from memories, people and places I’ve loved over the past month or two.

Enjoy (those with Spotify!) Scrawls & Bawls Feb 2010

1. Mason Jennings – Memphis, Tennessee
2. Evan Dando – Hard Drive (Live)
3. The Delgados – Is This All That I Came For?
4. Ardentjohn – Where All Paths Lead
5. The Replacements – Unsatisfied
6. Frightened Rabbit – Music Now
7. Songs: Ohia – Just Be Simple
8. Midlake – Rulers, Ruling All Things
9. Townes Van Zandt – Tecumeseh Valley (Live)
10. Deer Tick – Diamond Rings 2007
11. Drever, McCusker, Woomble – All Along The Way
12. Belle and Sebastian – Sleep The Clock Around
13. Withered Hand – Love In The Time Of Ecstasy
14. Drever, McCusker, Woomble – Hope To See
15. Phosphorescent – Wolves
16. Songs: Ohia – Farewell Transmission
17. Sebastien Tellier – La Ritournielle
18. The Chameleons – Second Skin

Party Music – How To Please All Of The People, All Of The Time?

I’ve been in Edinburgh for about 3 and a half years. In that space of time, I have lost count of the amount of parties I’ve been to, hosted, or had hosted in my flat on my behalf (thanks everyone, donations to the Cullen Property embezzlement fund are more than welcome). Perhaps the continual success or longevity of these things is that they’ve always just fallen into place. With notable exception (Clanefest 06, Ginge’s Doo), there has been very little organizing. Ad hoc has served us quite well.

Now it’s probably not irony, but I’m sure it’s something along those lines, that as I prepare to leave Edinburgh, for the first time, I am trying to organize one of these things in advance. I booked the room, I set up an event page on Facebook and, um, well that’s about it, but in this day and age, need I do anything more?

The main bone of contention (in my own mind anyway), is the music. I toyed with the idea of having a dj. Come to think of it, I’ve always fancied myself as a closet Jimmy Saville, however, the venue (The Cuckoo’s Nest) is quite small, my skimpy vinyl collection wouldn’t last us past 10pm, and since I flogged on my Stagelines about 6 years ago, I have a distinct lack of decks. That’s not to mention the notable absence of a shimmering shellsuit.

And since I’m hoping everyone attending the party is doing so to get well and truly langered, it would be a shame to thrust anybody upon the wheels of steel (although it’s not too late to volunteer)

Which leaves me with one option.

An iPod, hooked up to their sound system.

What I am suggesting, is that everyone planning to attend (fuggit, even those who aren’t coming) suggests ten tracks (this time for free, beat that Rupert) or more if you like. These will be fired onto said iPod, which should hopefully result in a pretty decent party playlist.

Otherwise, it’s gonna be my Townes Van Zandt Live At The Old Quarter album on repeat.

This may be a shite idea, and the chances are it will backfire on me (or nobody will respond), but I think the results could be pretty interesting. Leave your suggestions in the comments thingy below. Look forward to hearing some interesting selections (McNabb, no Rush).

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some Townes… be warned

Video: Townes Van Zandt – Pancho and Lefty