V/A: The Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol. III
Release year: 2022
Label: My Proud Mountain/Neurot Recordings
OK, let’s get one thing straight right away: Townes Van Zandt was one of the finest songwriters, lyricists, singers and performers ever. If you’re not on the level on this one, you might as well leave. The genius and excellence of Van Zandt are not up for debate, and differing opinions will be disregarded as trash.
With that out of the way, on with the review. The original The Songs Of Townes Van Zandt, a heavily Neurosis-related EP, was released in 2013 featuring artists such as Steve Von Till, Scott Kelly and Wino. A second part, featuring different performers, saw the light of day in 2014. And now, a third part, again with different performers, expands the series into a trilogy.
If you’re looking for darkness in your music, within the realm of country and folk music you’re looking for Townes Van Zandt. The man, who lived a tragic life riddled with addiction and bad fortune, died on January 1st 1997 due to injuries sustained in an accident – a tragic death in line with the life he’d led. His recording career, spanning four decades from the 60’s to the 90’s, is full of incredibly stark material that is at the same time intricately personal and deeply mystic – almost mythological; darkly humorous, and deeply serious; incredibly poetic, but direct.
It’s no wonder modern purveyors of dark, heavy and/or underground music are drawn to him.
On this album, US singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, Belgian sludge act Amenra and US post-metal band Cave In offer their take on nine Van Zandt songs (in other words, three each), from the more famous to the somewhat obscure – although none of Van Zandt’s (very few) real hits are present.
Though all do quite well in their renditions, the problem is this: they’re covering Townes Van Zandt. They’re covering an artist who cannot be imitated, who cannot be improved upon, who already did definite versions of his own tracks. So the option left is to do versions that cannot but be, well, inferior.
Accepting that, The Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol. III is not a bad album. Each artist treats the songs with utmost respect. Many versions are relatively faithful renditions, especially in the atmosphere department: it is obvious the performers have not tried to look for revolutionizing new interpretations or perspectives on the material, but focus on the same melancholy, the same stark and honest insight, the same world-weariness that could be heard in the original versions. The focus here is on the darkness and depressive melancholia, not the daydream-like sadness Van Zandt would echo at other times.
Nadler starts off the album with one of my Van Zandt favourites, Quicksilver Clouds Of Maria. She does a nice job, but… well, you know. The stripped-down arrangement feels too faithful, and I’m mostly left with a strong desire to press stop and put on the original. The same goes for her versions of Sad Cinderella and None But The Rain: these acoustic versions feel too close to how Van Zandt would’ve done them, and the originals are too important to me for Nadler’s in themselves quite competent versions to impress much.
Cave In fare a whole lot better with their effect-laden rendition of The Hole, succesfully evoking that pitch-black, oppressive abyss of addiction Van Zandt knew well and tapped into frequently in his music. Despite the haywire old-time modem sounding bleeping on the track, I think this is my favourite on the album. Cave In’s live version of Nothin’ feels again too familiar and traditional: they do it good, yes, but too townesy, so to speak. And their almost eight-minute version of At My Window? The electric, effect-laden arrangement and dragged-out, haunted vocals are a laudable effort – but ultimately the track doesn’t take off.
Amenra fall in line with the others. Again, their versions of Black Crow Blues, Kathleen and Flyin’ Shoes are fine, very respectful of Townes Van Zandt – and too townesy. Still, in this close match I think Amenra manage to impress the most overall. It’s hard to say why, there’s just something in their sullen, simple arrangements that taps succesfully into the tragic in Townes Van Zandt.
For listeners of the three artists, this might be an interesting window into the work of an artist from a different genre. But will a fan of slow, murky metal appreciate his favourite artist switching over to country/folk? I don’t know. On the other hand, from the viewpoint of a dedicated Townes Van Zandt fan – me! – this doesn’t compilation doesn’t really generate much interest in checking out the post-metal and sludge of Amenra and Cave In. Because, I safely assume their own material sounds nothing like this.
Still, with the disclaimers mentioned so verbously above kept in mind, I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this compilation. I don’t think it’s a particularly significant or important release, and it’s not one that somehow changes my understanding of Townes Van Zandt. But it does remind me of what a unique, powerful songwriter he was. And I do appreciate – truly appreciate – the obvious respect, love and at times even deep understanding with which these three artists treat Townes Van Zandt.