New West 5022 2 180g LPs
Produced by: Steve Earle
Engineered by: Steve Christensen and Ray Kennedy
Mixed by: Ray Kennedy
Mastered by: Kevin Gray at AcousTech Mastering
Earle Pays Tribute to Townes Van Zandt
by Michael Fremer
September 01, 2010
Steve Earle’s dusty, gritty tribute to his late friend Townes Van Zandt issued last year is about what you can usually expect from “tribute” albums. The two met when Earle was still a kid and Van Zandt was already established.
If you’re interested in Van Zandt you should pick up some of his originals or the vinyl reissues on Fat Possum. If you are an Earle fan you probably would prefer to listen to some of his older albums of original material, though he does pour everything he’s got into this.
I bought Townes on the recommendation of a friend and while the performances are okay, and certainly heartfelt (Earle’s connection to his friend was so deep he named his son, who appears on the album, Justin Townes), it doesn’t seem that Steve Earle brings anything new or useful in his interpretations of Van Zandt’s originals, though some work well.
Backed by a talented group of musicians including Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and guitarist/mandolinist Tim O’Brien, Earle covers 15 Van Zandt songs, mostly filled with anguish, desperation and a lot of pain, using the backing musicians to fill in more than to bring light.
“Poncho and Lefty,” Van Zandt’s brush mainstream success thanks to being covered by Emmylou Harris and then Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard opens the album and listening to it here makes clear how much its melancholic melodic line resembles Jackson Browne’s bleak “Adam.” Both were originally written and recorded around the same time on albums issued in 1972. Van Zandt’s is about betrayal, Browne’s suicide.
The bluegrass “White Freightliner Blues” notches up the mood but given the songwriter, there’s less about feeling liberated and more about being trapped or used, aging, losing love and other hard scrapple story lines—all told with deeply felt poetry.
The double LP vinyl issue was carefully and expensively produced, including a full-color double gatefold jacket, mastering by Kevin Gray at AcousTech and pressing on 180g RTI vinyl.
Unfortunately none of that can compensate for what sounds like a Pro-Tools recording. If I’m wrong and it was analog, I’ll eat a SmartPhone. Even if Gray had a high-resolution file from which to work, Pro-Tools sonic fingerprints are all over this: it’s dark, dark, dark. The sound is congealed and transients are soft and at the same time have a gritty edge. What a combination!
It sounds as if you’re listening through a foam barrier or you’ve accidentally left your earplugs in after returning from a live concert. Mind you, it’s better than bright, edgy and crispy, but you’ll find yourself turning up the volume to extract more life from the recording and none will materialize.
Thanks to Michael over at http://www.musicangle.com/ for the exclusive rights to reprint this material.
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