Track by Track through Steve Earle’s “Townes”
Managed to get a pre-release of the new Steve Earle record of Townes Van Zandt covers, appropriately titled Townes. Steve pays tribute to his hero through a record that both channels and reinterprets the work of the man that many consider to be the one of the great modern songwriters. Since the songs speak for themselves, I thought I might do a track by track take on the approach Earle takes to each song. Keep in mind that this is my first listen through the record.
1. Pancho and Lefty – Steve plays it straight, with his string-snapping fingerstyle playing and a little piano. Kudos for realizing that this song, above any of Townes’ others, stands strong on its own.
2. White Freightliner Blues – Flashes of The Mountain, the record Earle cut with the Del McCoury Band come back as raucous banjo and fiddle create the feeling that the wheels are coming off this rambling ode to the highway.
3. Colorado Girl – Earle’s last record, Washington Square Serenade, was calculated enough to fit the songs with beats, courtesy of Dust Brother John King. He interprets Colorado Girl about as loose as it could come, which seems about right for a TVZ song.
4. Where I Lead Me – Steve gets downright dusty for this song, which rides a steady beat and features some bristling distorted harmonica in a call and response with the lyrics.
5. Lungs – Featuring Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave, Steve shows his willingness to interpret Townes’ material through a modern filter. At first singing through a digital filter, the song quickly moves along to a sampled beat, before Morello’s fuzzed out guitar breaks the song loose.
6. No Place to Fall – This song has a bit of an Irish feel, as Earle picks and strums over a droning pump organ, creating an ominous environment that never quite rises or falls.
7. Loretta – This sounds like it could be an outtake from Earle’s last record, with the sampled beats providing a nice loping groove, accompanied by Alison Moorer, Earle’s wife, and a loopy fiddle.
8. Brand New Companion finds Earle moderating a simmering blues with his pleasantly overdriven guitar and harmonica. He opts for substance over flash, but the song drones on just a bit too long without a whole lot of dynamic or differentiation.
9. Rake – Steve takes on this desperate waltz with a raw voice and two fiddles. A brilliant interpretation of one of my favorite TVZ songs.
10. Delta Momma Blues – Luckily, this song doesn’t suffer the same fate as “Brand New Companion”, as Earle takes an Appalachian approach with a sawing fiddle and banjo that pleasantly rolls along and frames the song with the same carefree mood as Townes’ original version.
11. Marie – This song barely diverts from a single fingerpicked motif over a slapped tambourine. Earle doesn’t attempt to grow this song beyond a dirge, and wisely so.
12. Don’t Take It Too Bad – Earle is joined by a fiddle and a Dobro on this pleasantly waltzing ode to hopelessness (but disguised as reassurance).
13. Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold – Earle takes on one of Townes’ best story songs by using a simple panning trick to give the song two voices, finally joining in the final verse, which serves as a “moral of this story” moment. For all of Earle’s recording experimentation, this might pay off as the best use of the medium.
14. (Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria – Earle takes a light treatment to this swirling tribute to a near-mythical woman, and lets the lilting melody carry the song without a whole lot of addition.
15. To Live’s to Fly – A fitting end to this disc, Earle fronts a simple band on one of Townes’ better known songs. As he echoes Van Zandt’s exhortation to “shake the dust off of your wings”, the song seems to take flight.
After the last song finished, my iTunes skipped straight into “Mystery Train, pt. 2”, the first song from Earle’s largely acoustic Train A Comin’, and it seemed to fit perfectly. On this tribute, Earle shows as much of himself as he does his mentor and idol, and is able to draw the straight line connecting his style and Townes’ songs, just as if a son tried on his father’s clothes. A great record for Steve Earle fans, and those who could never get into Townes because of his hit and miss production.
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