Tuesday, October 8, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 557: Townes Van Zandt

I just finished the week five redraft for my football pool.  I only dropped one player, so hopefully that’s enough.

But this isn’t a football blog it’s a music blog, so let’s get back to it. It has been five days since my last review and I’m hungry to move on, despite the excellence of this next album.

Disc 557 is…. In the Beginning…
Artist: Townes Van Zandt

Year of Release: 1966 – well, released in 2002, but recorded in 1966

What’s up with the Cover?  A picture of Townes Van Zandt at the age of two, shooting a B.B. gun.  "Be careful, kid - you'll shoot your eye out!"

How I Came To Know It:  I’m a big Townes Van Zandt fan and was excited to find another album of his full of ‘lost’ music from his early career.  I bought it assuming that like all his other albums, it would be good.

How It Stacks Up:  I have nine studio albums by Van Zandt, if you count the double album of “High, Low and In Between” and “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt” as two albums, as they were originally intended.  Of those nine, “In the Beginning…” does well despite stiff competition, and I’ll place it sixth.

Rating:  4 stars

You’ll often hear people say, ‘that’s a pretty little song’ with very little appreciation how difficult it is to write one of them.  Well, pretty little songs spill out of Townes Van Zandt like water down a stream, and “In the Beginning…” shows that he was doing it years before he ever got any credit.

The album was recorded in 1966, but it wasn’t released until it was found in the back of a small label’s music files years later.  As a result the world had to wait two years longer than they should have to experience Townes’ songwriting genius, and more than 35 years before they heard these particular songs.

What is great about these songs is that they are every bit the equal of Townes’ later and more famous work, and hold all the same great elements that make him one of the most admired songwriters in North America – at least to those who have been lucky enough to be exposed to him.

The simple melodies are as artfully constructed as later work, and many of the songs remind me strongly of later songs.  “When Your Dream Lovers Die” is very similar in construction to “Sad Cinderella” in terms of chord progression, lyrical style and even subject matter.  While I like “Sad Cinderella” a bit more, they are both great.  Townes has an exceptional ability to string together a long run of imagery in words that unfold gently in time with the music, never feeling hurried until they end on a minor note that leaves you wanting more.

“In the Beginning…” also has some very bluesy elements which Townes would also develop on later records.  Songs like “Black Jack Mama” make you taste the dust and dirt of down n’ out living.  I love the opening line:

“Big blonde mama, lord, Apartment 213
Moves like a cobra snake and treats me a like king
Roll me over easy mama, roll me over slow
Do your best to please me, lord
And I’m bound to take you with me when I go.”

The album’s opening track, “Black Widow Blues” combines these bluesy elements with Van Zandt’s easy and lyrical folk stylings to create a style that is unique and as interesting as anything greats like Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson were doing at the same time.  “In the Beginning…” shows that Van Zandt found his musical voice early in his career.  While not quite as artfully forged as masterpiece records like “Our Mother the Mountain” or “High, Low and In Between” all the elements are here.

I also like that Van Zandt’s voice is so strong on this early recording.  I also have much later Van Zandt, both from “Live at McCabe’s” and his last studio album, “No Deeper Blue” where his voice has been ravaged by all the abuse he’s put his body through over the years.  Still rich and evocative, but a bit tattered.  On “In the Beginning…” it is strong and vibrant.  The tortured vision is still there, and the soul is noticeably old even in 1966, but the voice is still holding on strong.

I wished at times the songs were a bit longer or more fleshed out, and at thirty-three minutes of playing time, the album leaves you wanting more.  Then again, if you are going to err on a song’s length, it is better to err on the side of shorter.

Apart from that, there is little to not recommend this album and while it isn’t the place to start your Townes Van Zandt collection, that’s only because of his many other masterpieces edging it out for that honour.  Like the finding of the old recordings themselves, listening to this album just makes me miss his talent all the more knowing he didn’t live to see it released.  From “Colorado Bound”:

“It’s a mighty lonesome feeling, listening to the wind a-howlin’
Watchin’ raindrops fallin’ to the pavement outside your door
It’s a fool I am for waitin’ for the sound of your returnin’
For the sound of gentle breathin’, footsteps ‘cross the floor.”

Thanks for the unexpected footsteps, Townes; you are a welcome ghost breathing one more visitation into my music collection.

Best tracks:   Black Widow Blues, Maryetta’s Song, Gypsy Friday, Waitin’ For the Day, Colorado Bound, Black Crow Blues

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