Newest Review: ... If you are starting out with Townes, there is no better place to start as these recordings are by far his best. Many of his more w... more
A True Texan Legend
Texas Troubadour - Townes Van Zandt
Member Name: smudge-cat
Texas Troubadour - Townes Van Zandt
Advantages: Brilliant collection covering the peak of Van Zandts' career
Disadvantages: None that I can think of
For The Sake Of The Song (1968) is his debut album, and probably the most idiosyncratic record here. Compared to what follows, the sound is massive - co-producer 'Cowboy' Jack Clement allows for the grand mix of multiple pianos, drums, percussion and guitars on every songs that would rarely appear again. Although the recorder on the title track will appear regularly throughout this collection, it won't have the same innocent, jaunty tone. Indeed, this is clearly a very 60s record: an upbeat, pacy sound, with vocals pushed so far forward that Van Zandt appears to be almost shouting. None of this really seems to suit the subtle, thoughtful melancholia of Townes songs - and the fact he re-recorded 7 of the 11 tracks here in more intimate settings later suggests he thought so too. However, it is interesting to hear the songs played out on a grander stage, and hushed backing vocals help add depth to the more plodding songs such as 'Many A Fine Lady', which is all but crushed under its banal and needless band arrangement. The tracks re-recorded later will be improved; of the rest, 'The Velvet Voices' has an orgasmic opening of choral voices, before landing in a pleasant country groove (this is probably TVZ's most obviously 'country' album, due to the instruments used), and 'All Your Young Servants' fails to distinguish itself from the other contemplative cuts. Townes wrote many 'Talking Blues' in his career, popular with live audience due to their humorous words, but the only properly recorded one here is 'Talkin' Karate Blues', not the most politically correct song ever, but he tries his best: "'Yankee don't like my race'/I said, there's a mistake and that's true/...[and earlier].../Felt about half an inch tall under that old slanted stare [Pause]... Aw, you think he was yellow". Fortunately this is followed by 'Sixteen Summers, Fifteen Falls': easily the best track here, as each instrument carefully adds to the ominous undertow of the tune, and the strong backing vocals accentuate the despair of the singer, who's involved in a doomed romance with the (too?) young woman referenced in the title. Here, music and lyrics are definitely in harmony, for the first, but not the last, time.
Our Mother The Mountain (1969) could possibly be the best album here: certainly a good place for the uninitiated to start. Cowboy Jack is still co-producing, but the sound, for the most part, is clear and simple, and offers a better setting for Townes's lyrics. And so TVZ is allowed to settle into his natural performing environment: a sad, hushed whisper of a sound that can successfully transfix the solitary listener (and Van Zandt's music is a lonely, but endlessly rewarding, pursuit). 'Kathleen' is a good case in point. Mainly carried by TVZ's skeletal finger-picked guitar and echoing vocals, with the occasional bass guitar thud: the only other colour needed is a swooning string section that perfectly holds the attention and brilliantly reflects the lyrical content. This is the case throughout the record. 'She Came And She Touched Me', an exquisitely romantic ode, has a simple, almost jolly backing that just helps to highlight its distraught edges touchingly.
Townes lyrics are more striking too, perhaps due to this new backdrop: "My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom/The moon's dancing purple all through her black hair", warns the opening lines of the title track, a desolate flute adding the only other significant accompaniment to another broken, haunted love song: "I reach for her hand and her eyes turn to poison/And her hair turns to splinters and her flesh turns to brine/[...]/Screams that my first born must surely be blind". The music has moved from more obvious 'country' to moody 'folk', sounding almost classical in places, with the mix of woodwind and acoustic guitar. The boundaries between folk and country are easily blurred here: after all, both rely on story-telling lyrics that talk of lost souls and ruined lives. 'Tecumseh', re-recorded from the first album, is still too fussily arranged to work however (a later live version is stunning), but the albums penultimate song, 'My Proud Mountains', may be its zenith. It unfolds slowly over 5 minutes and allows a real focus on Van Zandt's guitar and voice. Such musical simplicity, matched with poetic lyrics, is the reason why other artists began to take notice of Townes Van Zandt now, why country artists see him as "the songwriter's songwriter", and why it is so criminal that he is still so unknown outside of the music genre he is associated with.
Townes Van Zandt (1970) picks up where Our Mother The Mountain left off. Re-recorded opener 'For The Sake Of The Song' is possibly the best song here, a magnificent slow-building epic that never even hints at becoming overblown, as the music always compliments that yearning, lost voice. Of the other re-recorded songs, 'Waitin' Around To Die' is a desolate masterpiece, driven by Townes guitar and dark lyrics ("Now I'm out of prison, I've got me a friend at last/[...]/He name's codeine, he's the nicest thing I've seen/Well, together we're gonna wait around and die"); 'I'll Be Here In The Morning' chugs along prettily and '(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria' is... quite boring really, and clearly inferior to the original version.
It's one of the few minus points here really. 'Colombine' and 'Colorado Girl' are both beautiful folk-country laments, filled with peaceful grace. 'Lungs' is a darker proposition, as Townes batters the life out of his guitar, a lone tambourine sings its death-rattle throughout, and a bone-dry slide guitar scrapes and drills its way inside your head. Recently, a particular favourite has been 'Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel', reminiscent of Dylan in its arrangement and thoughtful, intriguing listen. But this is surpassed by the finale, 'None But The Rain', where a simple descending chord sequence allows Townes to yearn for a missing love, against melodic woodwind. There's just something about its simplicity, and its brevity, that makes the song a quietly devastating ending, and an achingly suitable goodbye.
Delta Momma Blues (1971) sees TVZ recording in New York, not that he'd let such metropolitan surroundings affect his vision too much. 'F.F.V',apparently a traditional song, starts the album and is the perfect signpost to the bluesy, homely sound that runs through this record. 'Delta Momma Blues' and 'Brand New Companion' are the two most similar tracks, fitting this move into a more straightforward blues/country homage to Townes' influences: and both fall a little flat as they swerve unconsciously towards unneeded parody and pastiche. 'Turnstyled, Junkpiled' and 'Come Tomorrow' narrowly escape the same fate by virtue of sharing a more genuine sound, and appealing arrangements. 'Turnstyled...' in particular has an attractive country bounce, with fiddles and banjo fighting for attention against Townes' lyrics, which offer hope in the face of his usual problems, as he admits that none of it matters because "I'm still in love with you".
Continuing this pairing of songs that we've slipped into then: 'Only Him Or Me' and 'Tower Song' offer the more familiar 'quiet' TVZ sound of the previous two records, as his finger-picked guitar is brought to the fore. As you can probably guess, both songs are great, although the latter definitely stands out, as Townes tries to communicate with the women he loves.
That just leaves us with the last three songs of the album. 'Where I Lead Me' is Townes's most 'rocking' track so far, and so does very little for me. 'Rake' begins unusually, with an eerily sustained hum, before guitars start to pick out a nostalgically driven ode to the author's carefree past. The track then builds like none before it, as strings and brass are added, and the track is moved to a more effective level, breaking from its own internal world to connect more readily with the listener. And we end with 'Nothin''; and I guess the title says it all: "Your back ain't strong enough/For burdens double-fold/They'll crush you down/Down into nothing".
Two albums from 1972 now.
High, Low And In Between is the first. As is his wont, TVZ has wondered into a Los Angeles recording studio, and the songs have a kind of glossy Californian sheen now. Surprisingly, The first sound we hear is a bouncy piano, before a banging bass drum brings everyone else in: Townes's vocals being complimented by heavenly harmonies, whilst his guitar is almost nowhere to be seen. The sound is warm, more welcoming than before, and 'Two Hands', like the later 'When He Offers His Hand', is a gospel-tinged country shuffle: a declaration to a higher power that mines a popular and rich seam many of Townes's predecessors have always dug from. 'You Are Not Needed Now' keeps the piano to the fore, before drum whacks stir every other instrument into action again. This is TVZ's first true 'band' album, and such a definition brings with it all the positives and negatives you might expect. On this album, Townes's songs on the whole work in this new setting, at times creating a positive sound most unusual, but very becoming. 'Greensboro Women' could be the typical dour guitar and vox piece, but a simple band arrangement, with a gentle swirl of percussion and plodding bass, helps elevate in towards something more memorable. 'Mr Mudd And Mr Gold' has a similar energy: a brilliant folk tale set at a poker table hurtles by at a fantastic pace that never lets up; not until Townes has delivered his moral at the story's end. Not that the old Townes has disappeared completely. 'Highway Kind' is as stunningly bleak as anything taped previously: "My days they are the highway kind/They only come to leave".
When playing live, TVZ would sugar the gaps between songs with incongruous jokes, and the lovely Heartworn Highways film shows him constantly playing up and playing the fool for the amusement of others. 'No Deal' is one of the few tunes that reveal this other side of his personality, as Tonwes tries to overcome the various setbacks placed in his way: "Well, when true love knocked on my door, she'd just barely turned 15/And I was just a little bit nervous, if you know just what I mean/But I'd heard somewhere that true love conquers all and I figured that was that/Then I started having dreams 'bout big chased out of town wearing nothing but my cowboy hat". Well, it's a humour of a kind. And it contributes to Townes's most 'positive' album to date, where its upbeat nature pushes the listener through its weaker moments.
Excellently titled, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt is close to being his best album. Fans see it as his greatest record, and it contains some of his best-loved songs; but there's problems with the sequencing. His most popular (and financially rewarding) song, 'Pancho and Lefty', is tucked away on the second side, right next to another well-loved creation, 'If I Needed You'. Needless to say, both songs are fantastic tributes to the talent Townes had for creating memorable, melancholic country songs that are simultaneously sad and joyous, and they deserve to be known by a mass audience. 'If I Needed You' highlights that fact that the music seems best when at its simplest; just Townes finger-picking folky melodies whilst his expressive voice sticks to a simple tessitura to allow the poignancy of the lyrics to shine through. But this doesn't mean his more orchestrated music is any less affecting: 'Panco and Lefty' appears to be an even bleaker variant on the 'Butch Cassidy' myth, with one of the outlaws already dead and the other surviving only "out of kindness, I suppose". The dignity of the words is matched by the mournful strings and the Mariachi fanfares, all judiciously pivoting on the minor chords of the chorus.
Anyway, back to the start. 'No Lonesome Tune' seems a strangely low-key way to start, and its extended outro leaves me cold. Similarly, the re-recorded 'Sad Cinderella' fails to make an impact, and the bluesy, slide-guitar of 'German Mustard (A Clapalong)' makes the song unique in Townes's catalogue, but not especially in a good way. So, the cover of Gene Clark's 'Don't Let The Sunshine Fool You' is the first stand out on the album, its sound tying in with the gospel-country tumble of the previous album. Followed up by Hank Williams's 'Honky Tonkin', all shimmering pedal steel and country drawl (but with added distorted lead guitar and bizarre clanking percussion), and it seems possible that this is to be the record where Townes most clearly celebrates his influences and roots. The fragile 'Snow Don't Fall' breaks this up though; its stately, paino-led grave a perfect reminder of Townes's own talent, and he develops another bruised love song: "My love lies 'neath frozen skies/And waits in sweet repose for me". Lawton Williams's 'Fraulein' takes us back into Townes's past, as his father only agreed to buy him a guitar if he learned to play this song. Here, the debt is repaid respectfully, even if the song itself pales against Townes's own compositions.
Which takes us back to 'Pancho and Lefty'. So we'll jump ahead slightly, to the 'Silver Ships Of Andilar', an astonishing song that sounds like nothing else here. A softly picked ballad that slowly explodes into an epic, 5-minute burst of orchestration, the song poetically charts the doomed journey of a fleet of warships caught in a storm, as the man on boards begin to lose their minds: "For a soldier denied his battle plain on a comrade soon must turn".
Interestingly, the naval references lead us to the last, well-loved, song, 'Heavenly Houseboat Blues'; an understated goodbye to the world, and to a girl. With this simple and subtle folk song, I guess the record has pretty much gone full circle and we're back where we started: except hopefully we've realised just what the late, great Townes Van Zandt had to offer us.
Flyin' Shoes was Townes Van Zandt's first studio record in six years, the time in-between filled with endless touring (which we will come back to later). We're back in Nashville, home of his first two albums, and Townes is switching between writing songs and drinking his life away. His voice shows the effects of this lifestyle, all cracked and broken.
As an artist, Townes appears almost lost now, certainly out of time. The songs are still mostly there, but the band arrangements don't fit, leaving the sound mostly flat and smothered by unsuitability. 'Loretta' fades in, a wailing harmonica introducing Townes, soon joined by cooing female backing vocals. It's not a bad song, but it doesn't particularly excite either. The pace is slow, almost predictable, and the musicianship is slick but hollow. 'No Place To Fall' suffers a similar fate, lifted only by its waltz-time beat and carefully crafted chorus. But the band go through familiar paces; the same old moves being rehearsed again. 'Flyin' Shoes' is the first great song here, hampered by its arrangement. It begins with the solo harmonica, whose loneliness is emphasised by a ghostly pedal guitar, before unnecessary guitar and fussy piano enter. A second guitar sounds out of tune. Townes's weary vocals begin: "Days full of rain/The skies coming down again/I get so tired of these same old blues". Perhaps the over-playing is there just to annoy him further, make him want to leave just that little bit sooner: "Same old song/Baby it won't be long/Till I'll be tying on my flying shoes".
More tasteful songs pass us. Suddenly, something utterly bizarre. Townes's guitar has a cheap octave effect leaked onto it. And then so does his voice. The normal voice is there, up front, but so is this chipmonk monstrosity, and its hard to tell where its there for comedy of menace: "Well her mother was a golden girl/Slit her throat just to get her pearls". Evil fuzz guitar starts up, and widdles its way to the end. And yet... I find something fascinating about this song. Perhaps its just because of that cringeworthy effect.
Its juxtaposed against 'Rex's Blues', the best song here. Rex himself shows up in a scene cut from Heartworn Highways, ludicrously threatening the film crew with an air rifle and revealing his fingernails are painted to remind him what strings to play on his bass. For once, Townes sings about someone else's woes, apart from his own. It works, because he personalises the story, and sets it against one of his prettiest tunes ever (the band do their best to ruin it, but...): "Tell my baby I said so long/Tell my mother I did no wrong/Tell my brother to watch his own/Tell my friends to mourn me none".
We're near the end. 'Pueblo Waltz' is what it is: a 3/4 dance for a girl. 'Brother Flower' has an attractive tune, a yearning quality and a simplicity that makes it work. Finally, 'Snake Song' reminds of previous albums, at least to begin with. Townes's guitar is pushed forwards, bending strings and breaking through the speakers, before the band is allowed to dull its rage. Again.
Let's go back in time. The anthology is now in mopping up mode, and moves towards four Studio Outtakes c.1972/3. Clearly a busy period for Townes. The songs sound like they're coming from the past, a cracked vinyl, which is definitely no bad thing. 'The Spider Song' is fantastic, even if the structure seems a touch underwritten. It's worth it just for the spooky humming of the backing vocals. 'Buckskin Stallion Blues' is 'Brother Flower' with different words and a calmer vocal. 'At My Window' almost works but is too familiar at this stage to justify its length. It correctly remained an outtake, although it is well developed and orchestrated fully.
The last 8 tracks here are live, and focus exclusively on songs never studio recorded. Live albums are usually lesser artefacts, "you had to be there" moments, but it might just be the environment that Townes and his guitar work best in. Released in 1977, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas had actually been recorded over 5 nights in July 1973. The tracks here don't truly represent the brilliant intimacy of the full album, due mainly because of the justification behind their inclusion: they're mainly simple blues songs or covers. The latter seem to work out best, really: Merle Travis's 'Nine Pound Hammer' makes a virtue out of its naive tune, Townes skilfully finger picking out the melody, whilst bass runs on the guitar comfortably support him. It's simple, and leaves space for his warm, welcoming voice to fill. The traditional 'Cocaine Blues' achieves a similar effortless, but as the title may suggest, this is more pained and bare (in a good way), Townes keening and hurt voice really tapping into the listener's emotions: "Get out of here Momma, I thought you understood/You've got no connections and you're no damn good/Cocaine". At one point, someone in the crowd appears to softly echo Townes's "cocaine" plea, intimating that he understands exactly what the singer's singing. It's amazing, a real hairs on the back of the neck moment. And, if you've read all I've written in this review so far, you might be able to guess what my last words will be but, believe me when I say: It's by no means the only one.
NB: Review also available on Ciao