on August 30, 2013
While I’m not sure that these songs can be called “unheard” (somebody must have heard them before they were released such as the recording engineers, the musicians themselves, etc), I’m certainly glad that these studio sessions and demos have come out – disc one is studio sessions, disc two is demos. Townes wrote some of the best country rock songs around, and the studio sessions you hear here are either more spare than their originals (sometimes just guitar and a bit of drum, to lightly compliment Townes’ huge voice), while other songs are noisier than the originals, with greater guitar grooves (”Who Do You Love”, and the hard-to-find B-side “Sunshine Boy”, both benefit from an enthusiastic electric band). The first disc of studio tracks is followed by one of demos, which is simply Townes and his guitar (except for “Dead Flowers”, the Stones classic, which gets a bit of percussion). One totally new Townes composition appears here for the first time, “Diamond Heel Blues”, while he also gives us covers of “T For Texas”, “Dead Flowers” (two versions) and the traditional “Old Paint”.
To compare the studio versions as they appear on Texas Troubadour (which I review here) it an interesting exercise. “Blue Ridge Mountains” is a lot more raucous and has better sound. The demo of “Greensboro Woman” is quite a bit slower than the studio version, while “Lungs” is a lot faster on this version than on the official release (which, ironically, sounds more like a demo) and is peppered up with a full band and some spastic piano. There are two versions of “Mr Gold And Mr Mud” here, both a studio version and a demo. The studio version of is nearly identical to the official release, except the sound is richer, while the demo is stark and simple with none of the shuffle of the studio versions. The studio version of “No Deal” also sounds identical to the released version. The collection has two versions of “To Live Is To Fly”, one on each disc, both of which sound like demos, simple guitar and voice versions (on the studio version, drum kicks in about one third of the way through the song – doesn’t improve the song, though). “Two Hands” appears here without the gospel singers, it sounds pretty good… but I think those gospel singers are quite vital to a song like this, so this is not really a superior version. “Who Do You Love” has some pretty cool and funky (and loud!) guitar soloing at the end, not to mention some wild slide guitar. “Sunshine Boy”, the hard-to-find B-side of “If I Needed You”, is full of storytelling and great harmonies; it sounds just great, and is also spiced up with some wild guitar. “Where I Lead Me” is slower than the original, and has nice harmonica and some big, sloppy horns in it; funny thing about the addition of horns on that song, as one of the best songs on this collection is probably “Pancho and Lefty (alternate 1972 mix without strings and horns)” – yes that’s the full title – and it sounds very interesting without those darn mariachi band horns. While they are very distracting, listening to the song without horns helps to understand why they were added – as beautiful as the song is, it is also just a bit flat. The album has a great version of “You Are Not Needed Now”, even though the magnificent organ of the original is lacking (it also comes in a demo version). “Sad Cinderella” is mainly Townes’ voice and some choppy one-finger piano that sounds just a bit too spare, but is still somehow preferable to the studio original, with its harpsichord vanities. “White Trail Liner” has more of a bluegrass feel to it with some fingerpicked ukelele.
The demos are mainly just Townes’ voice and guitar and are truly beautiful. I love this sort of thing – just like Big Star’s demos are the best thing on their box set, this is really something very stunning (it doesn’t hurt that my wife and son are into mellow guitar music). “You Are Not Needed Here” is really just great, serenely beautiful with some perfect finger picking at the beginning. A warm, wonderful song. Nearly all the songs sound better with the simple treatment. Lovely. “Highway Kind” is also stunning in its perfect melancholy. One after another, they are all astounding, just Townes and his guitar. “Standin’” sounds pretty darn cool, and has a very different feel stripped of the shuffle of the official release version, Townes is also backed by some very nice backing vocals. This last disc is the real treasure of all Townes Van Zandt recordings. “When He Offers His Hand” is really amazing, stripped of the silly backing vocals, now just Townes and a studio buddy.
There are five songs on the collection that have never been released by Townes Van Zandt as studio recordings. Most interestingly, there are two versions of “Dead Flowers”, the Stones song that he does such a rich rendition of in the soundtrack of The Big Lebowski. The demo version is a smooth little rendition that has a bit of a drum machine backing Townes up (the only demo that does so). While it isn’t not as rich as the one we hear on The Big Lebowski soundtrack, its still very nice with some beautiful finger picking and Townes’ rich, languid voice. I just wish they could have done something about that drum machine!! The studio version has drum and piano to compliment Townes’ voice, it sounds a bit like something you’d hear in the lobby of a Best Western. Nuff said.
Besides the two versions of “Dead Flowers”, there’s “T For Texas”, a cool version of the classic number that has a lot of yodeling (rare for Townes) and moves at a languid pace. The traditional “Old Paint” is a simple wailin’ country blues song that strums and strums. Very nice indeed. “Untitled (demo)” is a nice, jazzy, upbeat unlisted little number that includes a sweet bit of finger picking that goes on for about one minute. Very nice indeed. “Diamond Heel Blues” is the only one of these songs to be written by Townes himself (besides “Untitled”, we’d assume), and it’s a great find! The song is full of some really great finger picking, and some lovely blues (it’s also the longest song on the set – it just goes on and on…).
Finally, the set comes with a 16-page booklet. The 7-page essay by Colin Escott doesn’t really have enough space to tell you anything too much new about Townes, but it does bring up a few nuggets, like the name of his murdered girlfriend, Leslie Jo Richards, some background of a young Townes Van Zandt trying to get his music career moving in Nashville (with Mickey Newbury as his co-manager, the writer of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”) and the prettifying producer of Johnny Cash and Roy Obison and Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Clements). The essay talks a lot about his motivations. “Realizing he could never follow in his father’s footsteps, he quit school and hit the road.” “By 1972, Townes had five LPs on the streets, a son he hardly saw, an ex-wife, a murdered girlfriend, and a heroin habit. ‘Living was painful to Townes,’ his ex-wife, Fran, told Robert Earl Hardy. ‘[He] didn’t know how to live in this world.’” There are six very nice pictures from the era of Townes alone, standing or seated, with either a musical instrument or a cigarette or a drink in his hands.