Steve Earle Townes

Since Townes Van Zandt's death in 1997 the act of covering his songs has become almost like wearing a badge that signifies acceptance in a rarefied artistic community. While Gram Parsons is still considered the great alt-country martyr to many, few of his songs, upon closer inspection, can hold a candle to even Van Zandt's lesser efforts. Van Zandt's penchant for self-destructive behaviour outdid Parsons too; his ultimate curse, in terms of pop culture status, being that he survived longer than anyone could have expected. But now with Parsons' work having been sufficiently glorified, it seems that Van Zandt is next in line. It's a far more complicated task but Steve Earle is as qualified as anyone to tackle it, given that he willingly played the role of Van Zandt's apprentice since the two first met in the early '70s. That labour of love aspect is what immediately comes across on Townes, comprised of 15 Van Zandt songs that Earle says mean the most to him. These inevitably include Van Zandt's best known: "Pancho And Lefty," "To Live Is To Fly" and "No Place To Fall," and Earle's barebones arrangements allow their brilliance to shine through in spite of his sometimes heavy-handed delivery. The album's best moments are instead the more obscure numbers, particularly "Rake" and "Marie," which fully display the dark grandeur of Van Zandt's storytelling style. Although Townes is recommended for anyone unfamiliar with Van Zandt, it should only be an introduction to the work of a true American master. (New West)