When Ray asked me to write for ThisIsNotAScene I didn’t expect to get country music to review, but when it came to an album of (John) Townes Van Zandt covers it all made sense. After all, Van Zandt was a man who had no real success when alive, was an alcoholic and drug addict, died at the age of 52, and since his death has become extensively covered and written about and declared the archetypal Texas country-folk, or “Outlaw Country” singer.
Van Zandt‘s songs were pretty much about unhappy people leading unfulfilled lives but who were somehow great people because of it – just the sort of thing you’d expect. “So she turned to whorin’ out on the streets, with all the lust inside her…Well they found her down beneath the stairs that led to Gypsy Sally’s”. That sort of thing. Now clearly there will be those who hold these stories/poems/songs in high regard and in reviewing a record of covers I’m feeling a bit torn – do I comment on the songs themselves or simply on the performances of those covering them? I’m going to do the latter.
I have a pretty strong opinion of cover versions (and I’m not including remixes in this). Some bands cover songs for B-sides or in a live show. Others present them as singles or legitimate album tracks. Some twist the absolute fuck out of them, taking nothing but the emotion they feel from the original, while others try to produce a clone.
What I do know is I’m not a fan of “tribute” bands or singers. If you’re a punter who missed the original – sorry, that’s life. If you’re a performer pretending to be someone else with the same hair and clothes and voice, then OK I understand that you need to make a living and I won’t judge you, but I won’t listen either.
What I do like is those cover versions that turn the song into something that is uniquely you, such as the 25 cover versions of Stairway to Heaven done for The Money Or The Gun in the early 90’s, or the R.E.M. covers on Surprise Your Pig. Even if the style of the cover isn’t to my taste, I love the fact that it’s not a copy.
OK, OK enough waffling. Get to the songs.
The nine songs are sung three apiece by Steve Von Till (Neurosis, Culper Ring, Harvestman), Scott Kelly (Neurosis, Mastodon, Shrinebuilder) and Wino (Shrinebuilder, The Obsessed, The Mentors), so it says a lot that three such accomplished artists decide to engage in a project like this. What I’m looking for is covers that show the individuality of the performer with a level of respect that says “I don’t think I’m better than you”. What I’m not looking for is fun, because these songs aren’t that cheery.
So do these three deliver? Yes. They don’t try to sound like Van Zandt, instead they reveal from the depths of their souls what his music does to them. Simple arrangements and production, deep croaking voices full of sorrow, regret and desperate, unrequited love, surely this is what country music is about – not the commercial version that sells millions.
Von Till opens with “If I Needed You” and misses a couple of the low notes but that adds to the rustic feel. Kelly takes over with “St John The Gambler” and he too reveals just what a vocal range Van Zandt had, but neither tries to mimic his twang or sing with his clarity. “Lungs”, sung by Kelly, is full of great tension and builds an extra layer of sound.
It’s not till track five; “Rake”, that we hear from Wino, which shows some thought went into track ordering rather than taking straight turns or running in three triplets. The music does become more complex again with synth in “The Snake Song” but the vocals are constant throughout.
In the end you have to ask yourself why you would pay tribute by singing covers that are good but not as good as they originals. I’m not sure who the target audience is although it’s clear the guys are not chasing the mass market. Personally I prefer what Nick Cave did to country, but it seems to me Von Till, Kelly and Wino have the noblest intention, which is simply to humbly honour a highly regarded singer-songwriter who clearly influenced so many others, almost like a simple funeral service in the middle of nowhere with three old friends of the deceased in attendance.
I like that.