Scott Kelly / Steve Von Till / Wino | ‘Songs of Townes Van Zandt’
A legendary and troubled figure, it’s no surprise that the late great Townes Van Zandt’s songs of lost love, regret and life on the verge of normality have found an audience and influence with some in the darker end of the metal spectrum.
And here, three of the metal world’s own most noteable explorers of similarly melancholic and cathartic areas pay homage to the man.
Both as a personal tribute, and perhaps to encourage those unfamiliar with him to seek out his own recordings.
What do these versions offer that the originals don’t? Well, let’s look at each performance individually.
The easy answer is that Kelly and Von Till invest their versions with a raggedness and worldweariness that the Van Zandt didn’t have, both men slowing down the songs and singing them in a much lower register.
Kelly’s version of ‘St. John the Gambler’ is the perfect example – while the original was a melancholic enough affair with some tasteful orchestral backing, Kelly slows the pace and strips it down to
acoustic guitar, some occasional slide, and his voice.
It’s a starker take on an already sombre song. His version of “Lungs” is also more of a crawl than the Van Zandt recordings, and has a more desperate, desolate feel.
It would be easy enough to imagine Neurosis performing his version as a full band. And again on ‘Tecumseh Valley’, one of Van Zandt’s best and most haunting tunes, he slows things down to and sings in a lower key. The natural side effect is to amplify the tragedy inherent in the lyrical tale being told.
If like me you sometimes can’t tell Kelly’s voice from Von Till’s, this album won’t help. I constantly had to check the tracklisting to see who was singing what as not only their voices, but their approach
to these songs are pretty much the same.
So of course it follows that Von Till’s take is also one which amplifies both the sadness and the beauty in the songs. His ‘If I Needed You’ sounds almost wounded, his ‘Black Crow Blues’ less like a song of consolation for a bereaved lover and more like the deathbed soliloquy it actually is.
He does, however stretch beyond the simple guitar and voice approach for a spellbinding run through of ‘Snake Song’ – the original VZ recording of which I don’t particularly care for – that introduces synth, slight distortion and a minimal pounding drum beat.
It’s the highlight of the album and a brilliant take that breathes new life into the song. During this version, you realise why this album was such a good idea and has merits beyond just being a simple personal tribute for these three men to an acknowledged influence.
Wino’s offerings are by no means weak, but to be honest they’re the least compelling here.
Again, a simple voice and guitar approach is taken, but whereas the other two take their versions at a leisurely pace Wino seems to rush through his versions of ‘Rake’ and ‘Nothin’.
Vocally he’s the most similar to Townes of the three and perhaps that’s why his recordings of these songs don’t really excite as much.
While not awful, ‘A Song For’ is given an almost singalong feel that jars with the sadness inherent in the lyric. With all respect in the world to Mr. Weinrich, his three contributions have been the ones I’ve found myself skipping with repeated plays.
Overall it might seem like a curiosity, but this is a fine record. It does the original version proud while displaying each individual’s own personality in the performances. For the uninitiated it’s an excellent introduction (though his own versions may sound timid compared to the gritty interpretations provided here).
If you’re a fan of any of the three musicians here this will also be a compulsory purchase, and one best revisited late at night over a whiskey or three.
3.8 / 5 - Jamie Grimes ::: 4/8/12