CD and Book Reviews

July 1999By Comments


Townes Van Zandt

A Far Cry From Dead

A Townes joke: what has a front cover, a back cover, and “Pancho and Lefty”? The new Townes Van Zandt album! That song, and others like “To Live’s to Fly,” “For the Sake of the Song,” and “Waitin’ ‘Round to Die” filled the various albums of his final decade, when deteriorating health dulled his muse and limited his output. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that A Far Cry From Dead—Van Zandt’s major label debut, coming two and a half years after his death—includes those songs plus eight other oldies and two new ones.

What makes this album different is that they are played by a crack band, gathered over the past year by producer Eric Paul to record along with solo recordings Van Zandt made from 1989 to 1996. This in itself is not objectionable—the recording process is, by its nature, artificial—and some of the songs are interesting: “Dollar Bill Blues” has a snaky charm and “Ain’t Leavin’ Your Love” features a cool guitar riff. But the hard-rock drums on “To Live’s to Fly” are faux-anthemic, and on the only decent new song, “Sanitarium Blues,” the horror in Van Zandt’s dying (literally) voice is candied by the wash of guitar and piano. Ultimately, the problem is that a producer and a bunch of studio musicians are filling the spaces in Van Zandt’s barren landscape with angel bells and precision acoustic guitars; the album feels like their creation, not his. It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. Van Zandt’s early albums were often overly tasteful and overproduced, and the long-awaited multi-CD set featuring sixty of his songs done by himself and other musicians promises more of the same. Van Zandt was a romantic, and everything he did in his reckless life was done for the sake of the song, at least up to the moment he finished writing it. Then it belonged to the world, where one person’s vision often becomes another’s sentimental journey.  Michael Hall

Willie Nelson

Night and Day

Even though Willie Nelson has ranged far and wide over the course of his career, from outlaw country to in-the-pocket Tin Pan Alley, one thing has remained constant: his warm and tender, flaking-at-the-edges voice, which has steadied even his shakiest albums. So give the man credit for having the nerve to toss away that divine crutch and let his guitar do the talking. On the all-instrumental Night and Day, Nelson pays tribute to le jazz hot, playing the role of Django Reinhardt while fiddle legend Johnny Gimble fills Stéphane Grappelli’s shoes. Purists may complain that on the handful of tunes associated with the great Gypsy guitarist (“Vous et Moi,” “Nuages,” “Honeysuckle Rose”) Nelson and his cohorts settle for mellow repose rather than the impish verve that was Reinhardt’s hallmark. But the result is lovely, even on those occasions when Mickey Raphael’s harmonica turns sentiment into sentimentality. In 1999 that’s as much as you can ask for; Nelson’s version of “Night and Day” may not top Reinhardt’s, but it’s sure a heck of a lot better than U2’s.  Jeff Salamon

Steven Meeks

A Long Time Coming
Music With Integrity

Steven Meeks has worked in Dallas community-based music programs for two decades, but he rarely performs live. He considers himself primarily a composer, and he doesn’t even play on this, his debut CD. A Long Time Coming confirms his self-appraisal. Meeks’s compositions embrace numerous modern jazz styles, and some may displease listeners who will like practically everything else—“Rose,” most obviously, could pass for “smooth jazz.” His range includes such Wayne Shorter-esque post-bop struts as “The Fast Lane” and the Mingus-like “Creepin’ to Midnight.” “Emerge” has the Brazilian-fusion feel of Weather Report-era Shorter. “Past” stretches into the spiritual, Afrocentric free-jazz territory of Meeks’s mentor, Horace Tapscott, the Houston-born pianist who made his name as a fiercely independent South Central L.A. arts activist from 1959 until his death this February. (For all their differences, Meeks’s compositions unfold with organic momentum similar to Tapscott’s.) With artists from Dallas’ Leaning House label—drummer Earl Harvin, tenor saxman Marchel Ivery, and tenor player Shelley Carrol—forming much of the core, this CD successfully introduces a new old voice to Texas jazz.  John Morthland

Earl Harvin Trio

At the Gypsy Tea Room
Leaning House Records

An acclaimed Dallas drummer may own the marquee name, but whose band is the Earl Harvin Trio? For two albums pianist Dave Palmer has handled the compositional duties as the band’s musical nucleus, yet he has shared billing with Harvin only once. Those familiar with the trio from their earlier recordings will find their live, two-CD set At the Gypsy Tea Room surprising. In place of Palmer’s vibrant acoustic work is the wet-blanket mush of the Fender Rhodes piano, an attempt at portability that instead established its own curious identity. With an arsenal of sonic tricks, Palmer’s muscular push conquers the Rhodes’s flabby key action, while Harvin and bassist Fred Hamilton ride the rhythm with finesse. Tunes such as “Albino” showcase the trio’s deft touch, and the impassioned melody on “Morning Psalm” carries through. Yet other pieces bog down in a fusion-fed quagmire. Harvin’s percussion work embellishes the album’s slower sections, and it’s these more introspective moments that linger; the recurring and protracted Rhodes-heavy riffing does not. There are some real moments here, but as with most live recordings, two CDs prove to be just about one too many.  Jeff McCord

Briefly Noted

Shaver—singer-songwriter Billy Joe and his guitarist son, Eddy—follow up their acoustic gospel album Victory with Electric Shaver (New West). As the title implies, it’s chock-full of twangy six-string bravado and robust songs that skirt the edge between roadhouse C&W and bluesy rock and roll…
Carl Normal has been an Englishman in Austin for more than a decade, but on Long Distance (Framed!), his band Stretford’s second album, he remains tied to the melodic Britpunk tradition of bands like Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers: superfast tempos, ultrabright horn parts, and a vast array of jagged-sweet guitar hooks.…
Atmospheric touches and gloomily ruminative melodies are the order of the day on Man Vs. Beast (M-Ray), the solo debut of Austin journeyman Troy Young Campbell. The former Loose Diamonds front man’s twenty-first century folk is bolstered by a supporting cast that includes such semi-famous types as Craig Ross, Jon Dee Graham, Patty Griffin, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Jason Cohen


Bill Minutaglio and Nick Newton

Locker Room Mojo: True Tales of Superstitions in Sport
Middlefork Press

If ever a book deserved a sporting chance at success, it’s Locker Room Mojo. Even sofa spuds are bound to enjoy this winningly wacky look at jocks and juju; after all, how many athletic-oriented anthologies feature a chapter called “Pardon My Ectoplasm”? The book is a team effort by Austinites Bill Minutaglio, a veteran sports and political writer, and co-author Nick Newton, a whimsical graphic designer. Their anecdotes span some two dozen sports (hockey, horse racing, every kind of ball), several millennia (ancient Minoan bull-leaping is dubbed “early rodeo”), and countless cultures (an Indonesian runner’s blood-sucking ritual). Texas tidbits include tales of a bad bunny day for the Houston Oilers, an alarming llama escapade at a Texas Rangers game, and the army-guy amulet favored by Corpus Christi race car driver Bobby Labonte. For the reader of Locker Room Mojo, jockularity is guaranteed.  Anne Dingus

Briefly Noted

Time-crunched readaholics depend on short-story collections, and Camping With Strangers (Boaz Publishing), by San Antonian Sarah Nawrocki, delivers. How can you resist sentences that begin, “The first person I spit on…” and “At the conference where I discovered I was a penguin…”?…

Ruth Pennebaker of Austin may someday succeed Houston’s Joan Lowery Nixon as the state’s premier young-adult novelist. In her second novel, Conditions of Love (Henry Holt), she manages a perfect blend of high school vernacular and ageless longing for the voice of her fourteen-year-old heroine.…

For The Red Ripper (St. Martin’s Press), the prolific Kerry Newcomb of Fort Worth takes a stab at recreating the (larger-than) life of rowdy, rough-hewn Bigfoot Wallace, the closest thing to a mountain man Texas ever had. Wallace was at various times a soldier, tracker, POW, and Texas Ranger; think there’s a novel in that? You bet.…

Someday reprints will come: A stalwart Texas tale is enjoying rerelease this summer. Dee Brown’s Wave High the Banner (University of New Mexico Press) is a Davy Crockett romance originally published in 1942, and it hews strictly to the old-school blood-and-thunder line. Tough ending, though: The hero—well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.  Anne Dingus

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