Monday, October 19, 2009

CD Odyssey Disc 43: Townes Van Zandt

Once again a new album (for me) makes an appearance. I've got about 7 or 8 new albums right now, so every other album could be a new one. I've added another rule that I can't do 2 new albums in succession.

This review is the beginning of what I think will be a long, satisfying relationship with Townes Van Zandt's music.

Disc 43 is...High, Low and In Between/The Late Great Townes Van Zandt

Artist: Townes Van Zandt

Year of Release: 1972

How I Came To Know It: I had never heard of Townes Van Zandt until Steve Earle did a tribute album to him. I reviewed that album back on September 4th of this year. I loved the songs, and decided I needed to hear the originals.

How It Stacks Up: Van Zandt has about 8 albums or so - most of which are from the late sixties and early seventies. I've got 5 Van Zandt albums, because I have been going nuts buying them. So fast, I haven't even heard them all yet. I've heard 3 and they are all equally good so far.

Rating: 4 stars.

Townes Van Zandt's most famous song is "Pancho and Lefty" which was remade famously by Willie Nelson in the eighties. I also recently found an album of Emmylou Harris that does the same remake back in 1978 (but I'll review that when I roll it).

Van Zandt is a "only a few in a generation" type talent. Steve Earle is quoted as saying "Townes Van Zandt is the greatest songwriter ever, and I would stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my boots and say so" - or something like that.

I think Van Zandt is one of many great song writers, and I'd put him in the rarified air of Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan and a few others. However, I wouldn't shout that from Bob Dylan's coffee table.

Don't get me wrong though - if the situation called for it, I'd stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table. I mean - maybe if he was already up there and invited me. Or maybe if he said something that really pissed me off. Or maybe if the floor was being flooded with some kind of horrible chemical spilling out of some nearby industrial plant and I had to choose between standing on Bob Dylan's coffee table and death.

Anyway - Van Zandt can write the blues, folk, and outlaw country and does all of them with equal excellence. I personally enjoy him the most when he does mournful introspective songs that put his personal demons on display, and help us see something universal in them.

Songs like "Greensboro Woman" sing of the tempations of the road, and "Sad Cinderella" is a beautiful song about a woman with fault of her own that is strongly reminiscent of Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximated" and which stands up strong to that classic.

Van Zandt also has fun tracks like "Mr. Mud and Mr. Gold" which tells the story of a poker game through the eyes of the cards. When you listen to the song you'll think it is a battlefield of Kings and rebel sons - but it's just a little seven card stud. I think. It moves pretty fast.

Unlike Dylan, Van Zandt is mostly lost to obscurity, yet once you have an ear for his name you'll hear many current artists pay homage to his legacy.

Ordinarily I would at this point complain that the album has 22 songs on it. However, this is really 2 albums of 11 songs each, so I'm making allowances. There are many five star songs on these 2 albums, but there are some that are not - and so the whole album can't get a perfect score. It comes close, though.

It is sad that Van Zandt's many bad habits took him from us so young, and reduced his ability to create. At the same time, his genius was salved by his addictions, and without them he may not have left us the same legacy. It is a hard truth that great art often comes with a great price. As Van Zandt himself sings in "High, Low and In Between":

What can you leave behind
When you're flyin' lightning fast
And all alone?
Only a trace, my friend,
Spirit of motion born
And direction grown.
A trace that will not fade
In frozen skies
Your journey will be
And if her shadow doesn't seem much company
Who said it would be?

Rest in peace, Townes Van Zandt. Thanks for all the great music I've heard of yours already, and for the songs awaiting me down the road.

Best tracks: You Are Not Needed Now, Greensboro Woman, To Live Is To Fly, High Low and In Between, No Lonesome Tune, Sad Cinderella, Snow Don't Fall, Poncho & Lefty, If I Needed You.

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