Well, this is a bit of a disappointment…
Released in 2012, the first Townes tribute was a winner, though not every track succeeded wholly. That earlier one was Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly of Neurosis alongside doom god Wino, each contributing three songs paying tribute to the late, great poet of country folk. Not metal except in distant spirit, those brooding and stripped down performances showed the power of Townes’ songs, the undercurrent of darkness that seeped in from his troubled life. Some worked better than others, of course – Von Till’s performances were particularly strong; Wino never fails; and Kelly’s third holds up better than I thought upon my initial listen. If nothing else, Songs Of Townes Van Zandt was a grand tribute to an artist and songwriter who remains underrated, one that showed that Van Zandt’s body of work transcended genre boundaries, as all good music should.
With Townes’ catalog as deep as it is, I’ve been awaiting this next volume since the first one ended, certain that the second would shine further light upon one of songwriting’s unsung masters.
And it sort of does, at least two-thirds of it. But it’s flawed far more than the first, at times unforgivably so. So this is a bit of a disappointment.
Most blatantly, with that aforementioned depth of material, there’s simply no need to repeat three of the songs from the first volume (and really no excuse for doing so). Baroness’ John Baizley re-covers “St. John The Gambler” and “If I Needed You,” done on the first volume by Kelly and Von Till, respectively; Yob’s Mike Scheidt re-does “Rake,” which was handled by Wino on the first edition. Only USX’s Nate Hall manages to turn in three songs not already covered, including a version of one of Van Zandt’s biggest numbers, “Pancho & Lefty,” and one of his absolute best, “Waiting Around To Die.”
Of the songs that appear again, only this “St. John” really competes with the version on the first tribute, the earlier one hamstrung by its leaden plod and this one benefiting from both a smoother tempo and more involved production than any other track in the series. Like all Baizley’s tunes here, this re-envisioning is done as a duet with Katie Jones, and the combination of his grit and her clarity provides a nice (if predictable) contrast. (Hall provides a similar juxtaposition on “Waiting Around,” bringing in Dark Castle’s Stevie Floyd to provide backgrounds, and again on “Our Mother The Mountain,” with Dorthia Cottrell.) Baizley’s “If I Needed Someone” simply can’t match up to the stark greatness of Von Till’s gravelly version, and Scheidt’s “Rake” lies largely lifeless.
And therein you’ll find the greater, more abstract problem of Songs Of Townes Van Zandt Vol. II – even with some great source material, very little here is terribly compelling, when considered against the original Van Zandt versions or even the earlier tribute effort. Von Till, Kelly, and Wino are heavyweights – their primary bands are massive, and they bring a certain depth and weight to their solo acoustic material that fits with that of their day jobs. But the metal-guy-as-folk-troubadour trend has a tendency to fall in the netherworld between the two, too often neither as powerful as metal nor as emotional as folk.
Of course, Scheidt’s main outlet in Yob is also massive, one of metal’s sturdiest outfits, but his material here doesn’t pack the punch of that, or the punch of Von Till or Kelly. Hall attempts the dusty Western approach, all acoustic guitar and raspy delivery awash in world-weary atmosphere. His portion is delivered capably, helped greatly by the choice of some of Van Zandt’s best-known tunes, but it’s as much hampered by its naked rawness as it is completely dependent upon it. (While serviceable, Hall’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” is outshined by almost all of the myriad covers of that tune with which I’m familiar.) Baizley’s third is the most produced of all six participants thusfar, with harmonized electric guitars, drum loops, synthesizer effects, and only in that aspect are his three tracks raised above the rest.
Make no mistake: Townes Van Zandt deserves all the praise he’s getting and far more – but the second volume of this set pales alongside the tragic beauty of his work, and even of so much of the first edition, especially the parts that Volume II directly repeats. Songs Of Townes Van Zandt, Volume II is a tribute album, and most unfortunately, it feels like one.