Double Play: Royal Thunder & ‘Songs of Townes Van Zandt’

Two reviews for the price of none!

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

 

Songs of Townes Van Zandt

Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till, Wino

Neurot Recordings/MY Proud Mountain

There are very few undiscovered gems in the world of music. For many, Townes Van Zandt is such a gem. Unlike other singer/songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or Johnny Cash, who were lifted from the ground, cleaned off and allowed to shine, Van Zandt was discovered by many but never got to shine as bright as he should have. His music is an enduring lesson on how the soul can be moved by a convergence of spirit, heart and ability. 

A tribute record to Townes Van Zandt seems ludicrous. How do you capture that spirit? How to you reinvent it and make it your own without sacrificing the source material? Cue Neurosis band members Scott Kelley and Steve Von Till and Saint Vitus front man Wino. These three icons of extreme music have banded together and released Songs Of Townes Van Zandt, a stunning and heart breaking acknowledgement of who Townes Van Zandt is and the importance of his legacy.

It’s no surprise that these men would put together something so wonderful. All three have had great success covering Van Zandt’s work and all three are clearly informed by the iconic folk singer. On Songs Of Townes Van Zandt the three avoid straight covers and elect to surround the songs with their own personal touches.

Take the opening track, “If I Needed You”. The original has heavy lyrics but juxtaposed against an upbeat temp. Steve Von Till takes his world-weary drawl, adds electric guitars and slows the entire song down.  Where Van Zandt’s original sounds like a quiet proclamation to a woman, Von Till’s has a sense of loss to it, as if the singer was thinking about what he would do if his lost love returned. 

Scott Kelly’s cover of “St. John The Gambler” reaches the same level of artistic freedom. Van Zandt’s original was a statement, the proclamation of a traveler who understands his lot in life. Kelley keeps that spirit but reduces it down to a sparse stroke of the guitar. Kelly’s work has always had an element of examining mortality and death. He injects that here, giving this version of “St. John The Gambler” the feeling of a lonely man waiting for death to take him and recounting his life. Only two songs into Songs Of Townes Van Zandt and you’re fucking heartbroken.

One of the absolute showstoppers is Wino’s version of “Rake”. While the cover is a little more traditional than either Kelly or Von Till, the power of Wino’s voice in an acoustic setting is undeniable. There’s country there, British metal, blues and a bit of folk. His enunciation combined with his vocal timber will grab hold and shake you until you react. “The Snake Song” from Steve Von Till takes Van Zandt’s original and set it on its ear. Adding feedback, static and noise to the woeful electric guitar gives the song a scary feeling it never had before. 

Then there’s Scott Kelly’s version of “Tecumseh Valley”. I defy anyone who has ever suffered heartbreak, loss or sadness to listen to this cover and not feel old scars re-open. Kelly just unleashes his voice over a simple guitar and allows the purity of what he’s doing to lift you up and take you away. The entire record has that kind of pure emotion, the stuff so rarely captured in music anymore. Each of these songs are moments, bits of time captured and layered within their own atmosphere. 

Perhaps the best thing about Songs Of Townes Van Zandt is that it will hopefully open up Van Zandt’s work to a new generation. I discovered him through my uncle and the songs have seen me through some very rough times. I hold Townes Van Zandt’s music in higher regard than most and I’m fiercely protective of it. Songs Of Townes Van Zandt is an album that does justice to the life and work of a profound artist.  Once again Scott Kelley, Steve Von Till and Wino leave me standing in awe.

 


 

Royal Thunder

CVI

Relapse Records

 

The hype surrounding Royal Thunder was such that I expected a new dawn of female fronted rock to blast from my speakers. I sat down, plugged in their new album CVI and waited for rock glory to commence. Then, the album was over, and I wasn’t laying on the floor in the fetal position thanking the rock gods for this gift. So I listened again. Halfway through the second listen I found myself thinking about other things. The third listen I ended by cleaning my office. What happened? What did I miss?

The fourth listen is when things clicked for me. CVI is a good album, but it isn’t great. It’s a fine slice of southern-friend stonerrock with some nice seventies rock touches, but that’s about it. If you ever wondered what it would sound like if Heart decided to cover the Obsessed then Royal Thunder might be the band of your dreams. For me the album was nothing to hate on, but certainly nothing that deserved the hard sell surrounding it. 

Could heavy music as a genre be so male dominated that we invite terms like “brilliant” and “amazing” into anything with a woman singing? Don’t misunderstand me. Royal Thunder vocalist Miny Parsonz is strikingly good. Her voice can be rage filled howl, angelic and beautiful and then seventies hard rock ass kicking. When she’s singing, Parsonz is better than just about any man or woman in the genre. The vocals are not where Royal Thunder stumbles for me. That comes with the music, which is boring and derivative.

I’ve read reviews and heard critiques about how wonderful the songwriting is on CVI. One critic even heralded their songwriting as “ground-breakingly good”. Really? Is it? If a man fronted Royal Thunder would anyone really think they were breaking new ground? Be honest. Really listen to the riffs and the songs outside the box of Parsonz vocals and tell me you hear anything but standard doomish/stoner riffs? Why are they so groundbreaking, because the first half of the album is a riff fest and the second is slow and more psychedelic? I’m not asking this to be just be “counter” the public stance, I’m really curious. 

The first song on the album, “Parsonz Curse” is a slow waltz that could have come from Orange Goblin or Foghat. “Whispering World” is a total jammer, a head bopping rump groover, but it isn’t pushing any envelopes. The 9-minute epic “Shake And Shift” is a nice idea but takes far too long to build any momentum and this is from a guy who loves ambient soundscapes and noise music. The absolute best moment on the album is “South Of Somewhere”. It’s dark, filled with mood and emotion and has a sound I would like to hear Royal Thunder investigate further. 

CVI is a solid record from end to end. It has good grooves, cool riffs and some interesting song structures, but that’s it. Nothing I heard on CVI drove me to want to listen to it again. There’s no denying that these players are talented or that Miny Parsonz voice is a gift from above, but there needs to be more. Royal Thunder has the potential to lift themselves out of the genre and do really interesting things. As of right now, with what I heard on CVI, they haven’t gotten there yet.