Ha! I bet you were not expecting an acoustic album featuring the music of Townes Van Zandt on MetalTalk were you? His music is not going to spin everyone's wheels and 'Songs Of Townes Van Zandt', a tribute to the work of the country cult hero, will more than likely end up being considered just another obscure album that is strictly for connoisseurs. Yet if you persevere, you may find that it has something that is a little bit special; hell, it just might even save your fucking worthless life.
Towns Van Zandt was adored within his circle of outlaw singer-songwriters but his depression, alcoholism and drug dependency overshadowed his genius, contributing to his early death at the young age of 52, in 1997. His sarcastic nature and the dark themes of his work meant he never found favour with Nashville's commercial country scene.
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Yet due to the respect of his peers his songs did gain mass exposure through the work of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. He also influenced many others including Mudhoney, Mark Lanegan, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, Ryan Bingham, Tom Morello, Cowboy Junkies, Robert Plant, Neil Young and Steve Earle. In fact, Earle is quoted as saying: "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." Sadly, despite the fervour of the few, Townes Van Zandt never received the recognition he deserved during his lifetime.
Now, Metal heavyweights Scott Kelly (Neurosis, Tribes Of Neurot, Blood And Time, Shrinebuilder and solo), Steve Von Till (Neurosis, Tribes Of Neurot, Culper Ring and solo as Harvestman) and doom maestro Robert Scott 'Wino' Weinrich (War Horse, The Obsessed, Saint Vitus and solo) have teamed up to celebrate the work and influence of Van Zandt. They've even created a new label, My Proud Mountain, specifically for the purpose of ensuring this album sees the light of day.
Each man has contributed three Van Zandt tunes; Wino contributes 'Rake', 'Nothing' and 'A Song For'. Steve Von Till offers us the Van Zandt classic 'If I Needed You', 'The Snake Song' and 'Black Crow Blues'. 'St John, The Gambler', 'Lungs' and 'Tecumseh Valley' come from Scott Kelly.
Drawn from Van Zandt's entire career, the album forgoes his more notable songs ('Waitin' Around To Die', 'To Live Is To Fly', 'No Place To Fall' and 'Pancho And Lefty' for instance) in preference for more obscure material and is better for it. Opener 'If I Needed Someone', probably the best-known song here, pretty much sets you up for what's to come with it's gravely road weary vocal and lone acoustic guitar. The stripped down 'Black Crow Blues', 'Lungs', the funereal 'St John The Gambler' and 'Tecumseh Valley' and the lonely fuzzy guitar embossed 'Snake Song', captivate and haunt; the lap steel crying throughout.
Be warned, country it may be but 'Songs Of Townes Van Zandt' is fucking dark. It is the most stripped back, rawest Americana you'll hear in a long, long time. With minimal add-ons and plug-ins it is a melancholic and striking take on rootsy country folk that is rendered so effectively you can almost smell the unwashed bodies, lost salvation and tired desperation, the spent sex and spilt beer of small town America. The imperfections of the performances, rather than hinder, help coax out the narrative of human frailty and despair.
This is not an album for happy smiley people. It will clear a dinner party faster than a flatulent biker with Ebola. This is an album for those who still wake up screaming like back over there, for those who have watched them put their best friend in the ground, for those who have found their spouse in the naked embrace of someone else: hymns for the wronged, cheated and dispossessed, for the forlorn, the lost and the broken, the damaged and the wasted.
So does this album review belong on MetalTalk? Yes it does and I'll tell you why.
With 'Songs Of Townes Van Zandt' these three Metalheads show how adaptable and flexible rock can be by fusing a Metal attitude to American country folk producing music that oozes power, subtlety and simplicity. Attributes many Metal bands sadly lack despite protestations to the contrary.
Nor is this the first time rockers of one sort or another have turned to their roots for inspiration, thus arguably producing some of their best stuff. Springsteen did it for his Seeger Sessions and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club did it with 'Howl' and even Buck Satan has had a go. All have been rather successful too but none have been quite as visceral as this.
'Songs Of Townes Van Zandt' is an album that works on two levels; one as a collection of tales of a hidden, lost America and the other as an album for those mornings after the night before when you wake to find yourself in a whole new world of heartache and pain where the phrase "gone to rat shit" has taken on a entirely new dimension.
There are two stars on this album; the performances and the songs themselves. There have been very few, if any covers that have done Van Zandt's originals any justice but that has now been remedied with these nine tracks.
So go on, treat yourself, get a copy and enjoy a trip to the dark side.