Review: Various Artists ‘Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol. III’

Time and circumstance have meant that it has been a long time since the last entry in the My Proud Mountain/Neurot Recordings Songs Of Townes Van Zandt series, having first delivered with Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till, and Wino in 2012, and then again with John Baizley, Mike Scheidt and Nate Hall in 2014; each set of covers taking notable and lauded musicians, giving their own unique slant on a heavy weight portfolio of incredible tunes that sadly became more famous through covers than acknowledgement of the troubled artist himself. The series faithfully showed the respect that the contributors have towards a man lauded by everyone from Bob Dylan to the recently departed Mark Langean. Now back with a third instalment, once again the minds behind this project have assembled modern artists to bring new takes on songs from one of America’s greatest and underappreciated songwriters.

Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol III

This time tracks have been contributed by American singer songwriter Marissa Nadler, Belgian post-metal sludge doomers Amenra, and Massachusetts progressive hardcore legends, the recently resurgent Cave In, who all contribute three tracks each that delve into Van Zandt’s back catalogue for some deep cuts and infuse the outlaw country tales with loving reverence through their personal musical prism.

Nadler, known for her contributions to the country and folk genre, often invokes experimental elements including metal, traditional folk, and Americana tackles Quicksilver Day Dreams Of Maria, Sad Cinderella, and None But The Rain and is here accompanied by Milky Burgess to add texture to the melodies and arrangements.

First up is Quicksilver Dreams…, first released in 1968, and popularised by Steve Earle, features a well-worn topic for Van Zandt’s lyrics, pining for lost love. The original’s almost Spanish flamenco stylings and soft, warm lament is here given a faithful recreation with the Texan’s rich gravel-tinged drawl replaced by Nadler’s smoky, breathy delivery, and the pitter patter drumming replaced by swelling electronic choral effects, making the track seem distant and dream like rather than a story sung on a porch on a summer’s evening. Less jaunty and celebratory, it pulls in the same feelings of longing and futility with a deeper sense of regret at dreams past without ever losing the song’s beauty.

Also from Van Zandt’s debut, For The Sake Of The Song, Marissa’s second track Sad Cinderella has a fuller sound to match the busier arrangement, but here it is more warmer and injected with a sci-fi soundtrack sensation, softer and seemingly more sorrowful than the slightly fatalistic original.

Moving to his eponymous second album, the impressive songstress closes out Vol III with the appropriate ‘we had our day, but now it’s over’ refrain of None But The Rain. Once more swelled by vocal effects and orchestral like backing this slow, tired take is dripping with emotion and light as air to bring the nine tracks to an end on an ethereal lullaby.

Eschewing their molten, feral sludge, Amenra stripped back their sound to just an acoustic guitar and vocals in as close a tribute to the artists vision as they could deliver in order to highlight the lyrical skills that caused Earle to say, Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.’

This soundtrack will soothe and break your heart at the same time…

Black Crow Blues immediately sets the downbeat tone, faithfully recreating the dark beauty and the melancholy that the man possessed to bring grown men to tears, the vocals alone on this version are enough to send shivers up and down the spine.

Beefing up the backing track with atmospheric swirls is Kathleen, from the Our Mother The Mountain album, and it’s an incredibly vulnerable take on an already emotionally charged song. Hesitant and stumbling, full of self-doubt and torment, this version is heavy in the feelings it invokes. As the backing rises and falls, the solitary lone voice brings doomed hope and the whispering of mental demons from the dark, lonesome hours of the morning and is at once devastating in its simplicity.

Finishing with Flyin’ Shoes, their last contribution is a tender, warm paean that quietly tugs at the heartstrings. Here they take one of Van Zandt’s more over produced tracks, in terms of arrangement and musically augmentation, and bring the mood down to infuse it with hope.

Cave In open with a live version of Nothin’ from their Roadburn set of April 2018 with Stephen Brodsky explaining that bassist Caleb Scofield, tragically killed in a car crash a month earlier, was a huge fan of Townes Van Zandt, setting the emotional timber of their contribution from the get go.

At this point to me, Brodsky can do little wrong, and here the lush timber of the sound and plaintive delivery helps turn this tale of Van Zandt at his most sardonic inquiring about his addiction, into something even more than the original and bringing a tear at the thought of the complexity of both the source, and the context it is presented here.

The Hole and At My Window are both terrifying drone, doom versions. The former is one of the heaviest and darkest songs that Van Zandt ever recorded in his quest to be the grandfather of the brutal truth. Vocally intone, almost Leonard Cohen like, it is thick and slow as it details the deal with the devil. The latter grinds and smoulders with an industrial flavour that judders, changing this simple poetry into a harder edge, bringing out the cynicism that permeated much of his songwriting.

My Proud Mountain and Neurot Recordings have to be commended for their continued work highlighting this most special of artists and bringing them to new audiences by harnessing the talents of modern and varied musicians who not only reverently pay tribute, but offer differing slants, showcasing the power and influence of Van Zandt‘s music. This soundtrack will soothe and break your heart at the same time.

Label: My Proud Mountain | Neurot Recordings

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden