Note: This review no longer available on the Microsoft Network; 1996-97 Microsoft Corporation and/or its suppliers. All rights reserved.
Townes Van Zandt
High, Low And In Between
*** 1/2
Townes Van Zandt is less known for his own performances these days than for the high regard he enjoys from other songwriters. "Poncho & Lefty", "If I Needed You", and "Tecumseh" have become country standards thanks to cover versions by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Steve Earle, among others; Earle went one step further by declaring his wish to stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table and announce that Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world. Listening to this reissue package of two albums first released in the '70s, High, Low And In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, one might be excused for wondering just what combination of drugs induced Earle to make that claim. At the same time, there's enough poetry and idiosyncratic musical charm on display to fuel anew Van Zandt's underground reputation as a tough-but-tender troubadour.

Actually, it's easy to understand Earle's particular enthusiasm, since both songwriters share such similar passions - for the honky-tonk laments of Hank Williams and the whisky-stained blues of Lightnin' Hopkins; for the traditional melodies of bluegrass, folk and gospel; for laconic West Texas storytelling that's hard on the outside and soft at the center. Equally at home with the sacred and the profane, Townes preaches spiritual humility on "Two Hands" and the pretty waltz "When He Offers His Hand" with a simple beauty the Carter Family could admire, then charts his own fallen path with a shrug on the droll "No Deal" and the fatalistic "Highway Kind". With a voice that strains and cracks beyond a half-octave range, he's in no danger of getting past the modern radio police, but his vocal authority remains strong, even on over-arranged orchestral fare like "Silver Ships Of Andilar", a tale of disaster and woe that, like "Poncho & Lefty", manages to mix sympathy for his characters with a more hardened view of the world which created them.

You can practically hear the saloon doors hitting him on the backside of '"Honky Tonkin'", but the best stuff here is melancholy in a quieter way; a portrait of a "Sad Cinderella" that suggests Dylan without the bile, or the gorgeous "If I Needed You", warmed by the down-home flavor of handclaps and pedal steel. And on "Heavenly Houseboat Blues", Van Zandt cinches his identity as the ultimate hobo; even up in paradise he's a fixin' to wander.

Mark Rowland
Label: EMI (America)
Available Formats: Compact Disc

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