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"Songs of Townes Van Zandt" (CD)

Scott Kelly - "Songs of Townes Van Zandt" CD cover image

"Songs of Townes Van Zandt" track listing:

1. If I Needed You [Steve Von Till]
2. St. John The Gambler [Scott Kelly]
3. Black Crow Blues [Steve Von Till]
4. Lungs [Scott Kelly]
5. Rake [Wino]
6. The Snake Song [Steve Von Till]
7. Nothing [Wino]
8. Tecumseh Valley [Scott Kelly]
9. A Song For [Wino]

Reviewed by on January 14, 2013

"'Songs Of Townes Van Zandt' is a beautifully acoustically rendered album by three men best known for music more brooding and brutal."

"Songs Of Townes Van Zandt" is a beautifully acoustically rendered album by three men best known for music more brooding and brutal. A tribute to one of the greatest American songwriters of the late-20th century, it's also a brilliant, if somewhat unexpected, work of art by Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till of Neurosis and Scott "Wino" Weinrich of Saint Vitus and the Obsessed.

Townes Van Zandt's hard-drinking and even harder-living story is a familiar one. He was a gifted songwriter whose works were admired and covered by others ("Pancho and Lefty," as covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, was a fixture of country music radio in the 1980s). Alcoholism destroyed pretty much any chance he had for success as a live performer, limiting him to dive bars until he finally met his end in 1997. In some ways, his music is more alive than ever, with acts like Norah Jones and Lyle Lovett recording superb cover versions of his songs.

Sure, Von Till, Kelly and, more recently, Wino, have recorded plenty of acoustic material. Still, they're best known for much louder sounds. Are these versions recorded with a little more of a dark feel than the Van Zandt originals — or the countless cover versions you've heard without knowing they were Van Zandt creations? You bet, but it's to the trio's credit that they don't go too far in twisting the songs around.

There is little to nothing that is "metal" about this album, other than the raw electric fuzz of "Lungs" and the psychedelic feel of "The Snake Song." Generally, acoustic guitar rules the day, with some minor electric accents on tracks like the opener, "If I Needed You."

The vocals are split equally between the three. Von Till's slightly raspier voice initially seems strange on the gentle "If I Needed You," but it works. The absolute highlight of the disc is the 7-minute "Tecumseh Valley," with Kelly's vocals and the guitars perfectly capturing the mournful tone of the lyrics. Wino's trio of tunes aren't quite as strong as the other six, but "A Song For" proves to be the perfect song to end the album with.

A beautiful, haunting tribute to one of America's greatest songwriters, "Songs Of Townes Van Zandt" isn't the usual metal grind. Still, it's impossible not to recommend for music fans of all stripes, proving that genre labels are often arbitrary.

Highs: Superb singing and playing throughout, and the songwriting is some of the best you'll hear regardless of genre.

Lows: None to speak of, though Wino's performances are ever-so-slightly less dynamic that Von Till and Kelly's

Bottom line: A masterpiece that features three of metal's finest paying tribute to an American original.

Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls
4.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)