TOWNES VAN ZANDT

OVERVIEW:
Townes’ has gained major cult status due to a too-early death and a generally mysterious presence. The man made some truly moving recordings, and he wrote some great songs – his voice in it’s prime was a powerful and authentic sounding instrument. But when Steve Earle proclaims him a better songwriter than Dylan…well…that’s just crazy. But I love the debut, which is an unpopular opinion – I think he never bettered it, and eventually grew rather dull and same-y. A unique talent, in any case.

THE ALBUMS:

For The Sake Of The Song  *
Our Mother The Mountain
Townes Van Zandt
Delta Momma Blues  *
High Low And In Between
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
Live At The Old Quarter
Flyin’ Shoes
At My Window
No Deeper Blue

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FOR THE SAKE OF THE SONG  (1968)

A

Everybody on the internet is wrong about this album. Townes Van Zandt is wrong about it too. The consensus goes a lil’ like this: this debut is full of great songs ruined by terrible over-production, and Van Zandt would eventually go on and re-record better versions of all these great tunes. Well you know what I think? This album is WAY better than it’s two follow-ups, and nearly EVERY SINGLE version is better than the subsequent ones. I just don’t understand what’s the matter with coloring these folk-country songs with some epic country Spaghetti Western arrangement ideas (angel voices, boomy drums, super echoey vocals). Anyway, now that that’s out of my system, let me say that this is an incredibly impressive debut, full of beautiful and simple folk songs. Van Zandt sounds to me like a mix of Leonard Cohen and Gene Clark, but this album actually emphasizes the Gene Clark side, and it’s a bit more friendly and “light” in it’s delivery. A bit more “pop” if you will. The variety in the arrangement makes for a much more enjoyable listen than the later “stripped down” sound, which I personally find a bit boring in its austerity. Nearly every song on here is a winner: the title track is a gorgeous and lyrically profound, I love this rambling upbeat version of “Tecumseh Valley,” “Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria” is one of the loveliest songs in the man’s catalog. I also really love “Velvet Voices,” “All Your Young Servants,” and “I’ll Be Here In The Morning.” All just fantastic country-folk-pop songs with haunting melodies. I think the famous “Waitin’ Around To Die” is a bit overrated though. Van Zandt from the get-go sounds like he’s in complete command of his vocal tone and writing style. And he sounds like a REAL cowboy – a crucial part of his appeal. To put it in more vulgar terms – the dude never gives you the slightest impression that he’s fucking around. An excellent record, this one is.

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OUR MOTHER THE MOUNTAIN  (1969)

B-

A much more boring and monochrome album than the debut. It’s also lacking as much strong material. A lot of this record sounds identical, and though that helps creates an effective and somber atmosphere, things grows tedious as the songs stack up. The arrangements have been scaled back, so that most of the album involves Van Zandt on vocals and acoustic guitar, with one or maybe two melodic instruments playing counter melodies in between the vocal phrases. There are a couple songs with a full string section. The problem with THIS arrangement concept is that the secondary instruments stick out in a major way, and can be quite distracting. So when everyone rips apart the previous album’s useless arrangements…they should be talking about THIS record instead. Take for example the opening track, “Be Here To Love Me.” It’s quite possibly the album’s best song, yet the track is nearly ruined by a totally stupid sounding flute as the counter-instrument. “Kathleen” is a decent sad ballad, but the transparent string section is rather dated and corny. A lot of this material is forgettable – “Like A Summer Thursday,” “Second Lovers Song,” and “My Proud Mountains” made no impression on me at all. “She Came And She Touched Me” is one of my favorites, probably because it sounds like an outtake from the previous album. The folky title track starts to bores me after a while, but there’s an undeniable quiet intensity to it. That leaves three other solid songs, and a ten-times worse re-make of “Tecumseh Valley” which replaces the rolling-along vibe of the original with a sleepy drab dark-folk one. Maybe it’s a matter of taste – but it sounds to me like all the charm and energy has been sucked out of the song. Since he himself re-recorded it, that may be how Van Zandt imagined it in the first place. As a whole, this album has some beautiful moments, and Van Zandt sounds just as lovely as before, but I’m mostly  bored while in its embrace.

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TOWNES VAN ZANDT  (1969)

C+

This one is super tough for me to figure out: 4 out of the 10 songs are re-makes of “For The Sake Of The Song” songs! I’m guessing Van Zandt’s first two albums didn’t sell and this was an attempt at starting over, so to speak – hence the title. The album even starts with the same opening track as on the debut (“For The Sake Of The Song”). Once again, Van Zandt seems to think that emphasizing the sadness and desolation in his compositions makes for better recordings. But this version of “For The Sake…” has a friggin’ talking drum part! How does that fit into the new rootsy schematic, I wonder? The talking drum isn’t even part of a large scale arrangement – it sticks out like a sore thumb, and sounds totally silly. Anyway, the whole re-done arrangement is less romantic and more dreary. The most extreme example of this ill-conceived re-make style occurs on “I’ll Be Here In The Morning,” which has been transformed from an endearing rambling country song into a downcast dirge-like number. For what reason? Isn’t it a sweet love song? Townes Van Zandt can do whatever he wants with his own excellent songs, but I don’t see why he couldn’t just move on from his disappointment with the first recordings instead of clouding up his catalog with all of this repetition. The new songs are pretty good, but as compositions they pale in comparison to the old ones. All, that is, except for “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” which RULES! It’s upbeat, with a folk-rock arrangement, a great melody, a great delivery etc. It’s one of my favorite Van Zandt songs.  “Lungs” is a pretty cool short bluesy number, and “Columbine” is pleasant if a bit forgettable. This is a very short album without much new material, but at least Van Zandt’s performance never falters for a second. The guy is COMMITTED to these songs, and his focus helps make the album more than just a throwaway.
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DELTA MOMMA BLUES   (1971)

A-

Definitely my favorite Townes album after the debut. First of all, there are no re-recorded songs. Secondly, he focuses almost on dusty folk and blues tunes – the arrangements are accordingly sparse, but this time that sparseness makes a lot of sense. Plus, this may be the peak of the man’s vocals…he just sounds so perfectly weary and he’s in complete command of his tone and emotional modulation. I also notice that the vocal production sound is very different here – instead of round and loud, it’s thinner and mixed down. It works MUCH better for me, and seems more Dylanish too (which is always a plus to my ears). Anyway, the whole record is just a bad-ass piece of American poetry. The songs aren’t quite as important as the VIBE here – but there are definitely some great ones. I love the title track – that melody suits Van Zandt’s voice so perfectly. “Tower Song” is incredibly sad and gorgeous. ‘Where I Lead Me” is a hard-hitting folk-blues song with great production. “Turnstyled Junkpiled” is a charming country tune. This is an key record by the man, and quite underrated too.

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HIGH LOW AND IN BETWEEN  (1972)

B-

The next two Townes albums are revered as essential pieces of his recorded legacy, but I don’t quite hear it. For the rest of his career, Townes mostly settles into a generic country/singer-songwriter sound that fails to capture the haunting, yearning magic of the best moments in his earlier records. The song-writing on this album ranges from top-notch (but rather boringly performed and produced) to country-filler mediocrity. Townes doesn’t sound nearly as “real” as he did before – this record almost sounds like an attempt at commercialization, though knowing what I know about the man, that probably wasn’t the main intention. But there are moments here that bring to mind a – dare I say – 70s folk lameness better left to the likes of James Taylor. There are some too-boring versions of very nice songs – “To Live Is To Fly,” “You Are Not Needed Now,” and the title track. This is well constructed material, but these recordings don’t even approach the majesty of the man’s debut or the grit and muscle of “Delta Momma.” The melodies are also incredibly lacking throughout this record, and there’s some serious roots rock “going-through-the-motions” at play (witness the generic gospel-country opener “Two Hands” and the utterly dull “Standin'”). The very BEST songs here (or at least my favorites) are all less country and more dark folk…there’s the forboding and brief “Highway Kind,” the Dylan-sh “Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud” which employs a more metaphorical and cryptic lyric than usual for Townes, and the fantastically spirited “Blue Ridge Mountains” with one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard from the man. So while most of the material here is respectable,  I was very disappointed in just how conventional and dull are large chunks of this record.

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THE LATE GREAT TOWNES VAN ZANDT   (1972)

C+

A further dulling of that gorgeous and riveting early sound. This is basically part two of “High Low And In Between.” I must admit that while there are some solid songs on here (and some of Townes’ most famous due to big cover versions), this album in total just bores me to tears. One problem from the get-go: three covers and ANOTHER friggin’ remake of a ‘For The Sake The Song” track. Now, granted, when a performer working in the “country/folk” genre lays down some covers, that shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. But with a guy like Van Zandt, I’m looking for classy songwriting more than anything else. It’s like: when Dylan or Neil do a cover, that’s all well and good, but I certainly care far more about their own writing – that’s their main raison d’etre! Same with Van Zandt. Anyway, adding to the problem is the fact that the covers and remakes are among the strongest material on here. “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya” has the most charm and energy of all the songs, and Townes pulls off Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin'” with total cowboy grace. The best news, though, is that there’s FINALLY a better remake than the original: “Sad Cinderella” was one of the least memorable songs on the debut, but this version elevates the song by emphasizing the refrain with more pronounced female back-up vocals and turning it into low-key country as opposed to the baroque 60s pop sound of the original (though Townes’ voice is way better on the earlier version). It says something about the man’s deteriorating talents, though, when perhaps the best song on this record comes yet again from his first album. The two famous new compositions are the cowboy narrative/balled “Poncho and Lefty” and the poppier “If I Needed You.” I can’t say either of them do much for me as performances and recordings, though “Poncho” has a great set of lyrics and they’re both well-written tunes. The 5 minute fantasy folk-ballad “Silver Ships of Andilar” is unique for Townes in its subject matter (and again, some great lyric writing)…but it’s dreadfully boring in every other way. I sort of like opener “No Lonesome Tune,” which creates a properly meloncholy atmosphere and has some great guitar playing. Unfortunately, though, I feel Townes has lost his real power by this point, and this whole record just sounds tired and lifeless to me. Very overrated too (by the man’s fans, not the general public), which I’m guessing is mostly due to the presence of those two famous compositions.

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LIVE AT THE OLD QUARTER   (1977, recorded 1973)

(no grade)

Looking at his discography, it appears Townes released a LOT of live albums in the 80s and 90s. This one comes from 1973, and it’s generally regarded as his best, and sometimes even his best (or most representative) overall record. It certainly collapses a lot of his best songs into 2 discs – but it’s all solo acoustic, and the performances range in quality, so that it ends up more a curiosity than an essential work. It’s definitely neat to hear the man in front of an audience – his banter is perhaps the most humble and shy I’ve ever heard from a performer. He sounds like a nice guy, telling some cute jokes and prefacing a lot of his brilliant songs with lines like “this is a nice song” or “I wrote this song on the banjo.” He may have gotten Dylan comparisons. but his personable onstage persona is miles away from Dylan’s closed off living-myth schtick. There’s a very strong song I hadn’t heard before – “Two Girls” – though this mostly just spans his career up to that point. It does includes a couple songs he hadn’t recorded yet but would eventually lay down. One personal note: There’s not enough “Delta Momma” songs for my tastes! The short intro track is pretty funny – the manager of the small club (or whoever he is), prior to announcing Van Zandt, lets everybody know that the bathrooms, cigarette machines, payphones, and foosball tables can all be found “upstairs.” Another example of the totally homespun quality of this record – a nice one, and worth hearing for big Townes’ fans, but basically exactly what you’d expect when I say “Solo acoustic low-key versions of Townes’ best songs.”

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FLYIN’ SHOES   (1978)

C-

The fall-off continues in a serious way on this utterly inessential and weak-sounding record. Townes waited 6 years between the last record and this follow-up. I know he had a lot of substance abuse problems, coupled with serious emotional issues, and of course he’s now dealing with the late 70s when uncommercial and singular musicians were generally fucked on the cash front. But still…30 minutes of his worst ever material, performed as if he were on auto-pilot, with totally innappropriate “clean” sounding production? This after 6 years? The first side of this album is basically useless to me – not one song made any impact whatsoever. “Brother Flower” is dorky hippie-ness, and “Dollar Bill Blues” is forgettable and mis-applies a weird vocal effect. “Rex’s Blues” and “Pueblo Waltz” are both very pretty, but Townes sounds so broken and un-inspired on these songs. His voice is a shade of what it used to be. The magic is gone. Luckily, side two is a giant step up, and it even includes two total classics. “No Place To Fall” is easily my favorite “soft-Townes” song – the melody and sentiment and performance are all absolutely beautiful. And the title track is one of the man’s all time greatest as well – it’s atmospheric and haunting and just dripping with sadness. Without those two great songs, this album would have a considerably lower grade. I can’t finish this review without mentioning the all-time worst Van Zandt studio recording (that I’ve heard so far that is): a cover of “Who Do You Love” that stinks to high heaven like a dead skunk in the middle of the road (I’m listening to Loudon Wainwright’s catalog at the moment as well). It’s an embarrassingly over-produced and silly recording – enough said.  I wish I had kinder words to say about this record – Townes wouldn’t make another until 1987, and in some ways this is the last album of his “classic” years. But I just don’t like it!

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AT MY WINDOW   (1987)

(no grade)

Sheesh! I don’t know exactly what transpired in Townes’ life between 1978 and 1987…but this 1987 album was his first since 1978 and he sounds so much older. His voice is practically a shade of its old self, though the ruggedness SHOULD really serve as a boon to these cowboy songs. But that compromised voice has to combat, in addition to its own failings, some horrible production touches (cheesy hand percussion and even cheesier sax parts), and a set of mostly boring and unatmospheric material. The whole record just sounds….old. And creaky. Townes saw fit to re-record a THIRD version of “For The Sake of The Song!” And he made yet again no improvements on the immaculate original. Everything on this album is competent, but nothing strikes me as inspired. The title track and ‘The Catfish Song” and “Blue Wind Blew” are all nice enough tunes, and nothing stands out as BAD (though those sax parts need to get the FUCK out of these grooves). But it’s just all inessential to me relative to other releases by the man, and I can’t say I was moved by anything on here (though there’s still that lonely yearning in Townes’ delivery – so I can imagine a big fan apologizing for this album’s many faults and just soaking up the pathos).

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NO DEEPER BLUE  (1994)

(no grade)

MUCH better! This came out seven years after “At My Window,” and Townes sounds just as old and grizzled as he did on that record. It really sounds like he’s struggling to make his way through these vocal performances – he has no resonance or control left. But thankfully the production and arrangements are far more tasteful this time around – and there ain’t no sax! There are no revelations in the material, and Townes is mostly just repeating the same blues progressions and barely-there folk melodies he’s used dozens of times already. But there are some surprises – “If I Was Washington” is a fun novelty song complete with jazzy Dixieland horns! There are a couple pretty folk songs directed at Townes’ children (“Katie Belle Blue” is one of the lovelier tracks on the record). “Marie” is probably the overall best new song – it’s an old-school sounding dark Van Zandt folk ballad with powerful lyrics and a doom-y atmosphere. Closer “Gone Too Long” is a decent bluesy country rambler. There are a bunch of generic songs that washed over me on first listen, and cornier stuff like ‘Lover’s Lullaby” brings to mind the worst of 80s Dylan. This isn’t a bad final record for Townes – if he still had his voice some of these tunes might have sounded way more powerful, because his writing hasn’t really changed. But that voice…such a key part of those haunting early albums…without it, I’m afraid I’m just not that excited by the man.

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