Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Steve Earle - Townes

Rating: 7.5
Released: May 12, 2009
New West

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the long unheralded late Townes Van Zandt (photo right) is due for some flattery.

A brilliant folk and blues songwriter, Van Zandt's acolytes read like a laundry list of popular and influential modern artists: Conor Oberst, Neil Young, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Meat Puppets, Devendra Banhart, and, oh yeah, Bob Dylan.

His three-decade recording career yielded heaps of blues and country originals that injected Woody Guthrie's everyman poetry with Texas attitude and grit, including the Van Zandt-penned country smash "Pancho and Lefty."

It also produced equal heaps of financial disarray and addictions.

Yet his death in 1997 passed, much like his troubled life, under the radar.

It should come as no surprise that perhaps the most moving tribute so far for the "songwriter's songwriter" comes from his protege, Nashville roots icon Steve Earle (photo left).

Earle once called Van Zandt the best songwriter in the world. Still, he doesn't let his devotion get in the way of a good performance on Townes.

This 15-track collection cherrypicks Van Zandt's wandering catalogue of sparse folk and gritty blues over three decades, delivering faithful takes that, for the most part, steer clear of overly reverent canonizations.

The wry Van Zandt would probably have wanted it that way.

The hits, or as close as Van Zandt came to hits, are all here, including "Pancho and Lefty," Townes' legendary outlaw drama.

In the hands of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, "Pancho and Lefty" was a chart-topping smash in 1983. Don't expect the same for Earle's lonely, acoustic interpretation.

But the highlights here are the overlooked numbers.

Earle delivers an apocalyptic take on "Lungs," spicing up Van Zandt's original with breathy vocals, Crazy Horse guitar distortion and an amped up rhythm section.

"Won't you lend your lungs to me/mine are collapsing," Earle sings like he wrote it.

Earle seems positively giddy to spin "Delta Momma Blues," Van Zandt's playful folk ode to lusty Mississippi stool pigeons, and his pub love letter "Loretta," which Earle turns into a Celtic ballad.

"My guitar sings, Loretta's fine/Long and lazy, blonde and free/I can have her any time," Earle drawls on the latter.

For an artist like Van Zandt, whose music is often packaged with the troubled, drug-addled story of his short life, it's refreshing to hear what pushed the blues troubador more than booze and narcotics: women.

All of it sounds like Earle, whose earned the right to sing the blues. The "hard-core troubador" has had his fair share of drug and legal problems.

As with most covers albums, most of the tunes end up sounding like the performer and not the icon, but the 15 songs here hew closely enough to Van Zandt's homespun pastiche to weave a fitting tribute.

If you're into Earle's ragged roots rock and churning grungy anthems, you'll dig it. If not, buy the originals for the real deal.

It may be too late to give Van Zandt's wallet a well-deserved fattening, but here's hoping he finds a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a little help from his friends.

- SoR

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