LP Review: Van Morrison Returns (Already) With the Bluesy Jazz of ‘The Prophet Speaks’

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“When the prophet speaks, you’ve got to listen” – Van Morrison “The Prophet Speaks”

I never dreamed, when I posted my thoughts in September of 2016 on Van Morrison’s brilliant late-period album Keep Me Singing, that it was going to be the beginning of one of the most prolific periods of his career. His previous album of all new material had come in 2012, four years prior (Born to Sing: No Plan B). The guy has been really busy since then. Since Keep Me Singing, he’s released four albums in the span of 15 months. This prolific period began with the exceptional Roll With the Punches, which I described as a laid-back blues party. Van had some friends jamming with him on that album, which included Jeff Beck on guitar, an inspired choice. He went on to release Versatile (a jazz and standards heavy record) three months after Roll With the Punches. He then recorded the jazzy You’re Driving Me Crazy with the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet last April. Now he’s already back with a new album, The Prophet Speaks, a mere 8 months later. He’s on a 2 album/year pace… Back in the sixties the record companies were always pressing their artists for new product. The feeling back then was you had to stay in front of the public with new stuff… The Beatles and Stones, early in their careers, put out 2 albums/year. These days, this kind of pace/output is unheard of.

As long as Van keeps putting out quality albums like The Prophet Speaks, I say, keep them coming. Van has always been a prolific songwriter, but I believe one of the reasons he’s been able to put out albums every few months is that since Roll With the Punches his records have been heavy on covers. For Van, who can literally sing anything – folk, blues jazz, Irish, soul, rock and roll – doing covers isn’t a bad thing. Van may not be the singer he was in his 20s, like Geddy Lee or Robert Plant these days he’s singing more from his diaphragm than shredding his vocal cords, he can still sing with nuance and great feeling. He’s also got spectacular taste in material, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the reasons I loved Roll With the Punches was that it was deeply rooted in the blues. As anyone who have read this blog for any time knows, everything we love at B&V springs from the blues. I will admit, I shied away from Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy as they were more jazz leaning than I’m typically drawn too. For years I felt I wasn’t smart enough for Jazz. It’s very cerebral music. Last year I went to a ClassicAlbumSunday event (an afternoon featuring a certain album, curated by experts) and heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I’m still not smart enough for jazz, but that album blew my mind. The curator of that afternoon explained a lot about jazz and at least now I can groove on wonderful saxophone driven music that was here-to-fore a mystery to me. Still, Van’s Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy just didn’t hit me the way Roll With the Punches did.

With The Prophet Speaks, we find Van recording with the same crew as You’re Driving Me Crazy, the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet. Joey plays keyboards (most notably organ) and horns. He’s accompanied by Michael Ode on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar and Troy Roberts on bass and saxophones. This is a big, brassy album with a lot of great organ fills. When I hear this music, it transports me back to the old days when the Plaza III had a jazz club in the basement. If you knew somebody you could slip in after hours and listen to the old jazz guys, done with their paying gigs, jam until the wee hours. Nowadays to hear music like this, I grab the Rock Chick and head down to the Green Lady Lounge, order martinis and swing, baby. While this album is jazzy, it’s more like blues or R&B filtered through a jazz lens than straight up jazz. It’s very accessible music. As mentioned, this album swings. It is very apparent that Van, one of rock’s original curmudgeons, is having a blast here. You can hear him call out for sax solos, or moan, “Whoa” in reaction to a solo. He’s into this album and he should be, it’s great.

Van’s selection of artists to cover would make a great blues and soul record collection. He does a great, albeit less bluesy cover of “Dimples” by his old pal John Lee Hooker. He also does Willie Dixon’s “Love The Life I Live” made famous by Muddy Waters. While this version couldn’t sound more different from Gregg Allman’s recent cover of the same track, I still dig it. We also hear Van do “Worried Blues/Rollin’ And Tumblin'”… I think Van is the third artist to do that song this year (Billy Gibbons, Rod Stewart). Another highlight is the old traditional, “Teardrops” that finds Van and the band jamming in fine form. Van does a couple of great soul standards as well. “Gotta Get You Off Of My Mind” by Solomon Burke has a nice harmony vocal by Van’s daughter Shana Morrison. Another soul cover, and perhaps my favorite, is Sam Cooke’s “Laughin’ And Clownin’.” Sam’s influence is so broad, I need to write about him.

Beside all those great covers, Van blends in a number of originals. My favorites are probably “5 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time,” the story of a guy walking home at 5 a.m… and yes, it’s been a while since I’ve done that but we’ve all been there. Another great, bluesy tune is “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More.” It’s just a great Van Morrison song. Another great vamp is “Got To Get Where the Love Is,” Van’s first original on the album. The record ends with two songs more based in spirituality, “Spirit Will Provide” and title track. What would a Van album be without a little spirituality. 

If you’re a fan of Van’s, and admittedly, I am (I’m currently reading a book on the recording of Astral Weeks), you’ll love this album. Don’t let the word “jazz” in this post scare you away. This is a great, loose, groove record and I highly recommend it. To paraphrase, when Van sings, you’ve got to listen…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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LP Review: Van Morrison, ‘Roll With The Punches,’ A Laid-Back Blues Party

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In the 60s and even into the 70’s, record companies pushed artists constantly for new material, or as the record companies called it, new “product.” Early on, I think the Beatles put out three albums in one year. Apparently the record companies weren’t familiar with the concept of burn out, but when has any faceless corporation cared about burn out. By the 70s the pace had slowed a little bit… artists were only expected to put out an album a year. I can remember the Faces even saying, “thank you and we’ll see you next year” or something to that effect in the liner notes to one album. But that was the formula, put out an album, tour and do it again next year. Wash, rinse, repeat. When Springsteen took three years  between ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ due to legal issues it was a big deal. That kind of gap between records, which is fairly standard now, was considered career suicide. The term saturation apparently hadn’t been discovered yet.

Nowadays artists can take up to five years between albums and nobody bats an eye. U2 usually  takes about five years between records… Although I’ve noticed Springsteen, a notorious perfectionist, is only taking about two to three years between records lately…making up for lost time, no doubt. Metallica took eight years between ‘Death Magnetic’ and ‘Hardwired.’ I was surprised earlier this year when Cheap Trick, of all people, bucked that trend and returned only a year after 2016’s ‘Bang, Crazy, Zoom…Hello’ with this year’s exceptional ‘We’re All Alright.’ If I was surprised that Cheap Trick put out albums in consecutive years in the 2010s, imagine my downright shock that Van Morrison, only one year after his fabulous 2016 album, ‘Keep Me Singing’ (reviewed on B&V: LP Review: Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” Rock’s Curmudgeon’s Understated, Rootsy Return) has returned with this year’s ‘Roll With the Punches.’ This is starting to feel like the 70s and I mean that in a good way, not the 70s disco-leisure suit bad way… At least this time around it’s the artists who are choosing to put the music out so quickly and not the dictates of some faceless record company.

When I started to dig into my research on ‘Roll With The Punches’ I quickly discovered this was predominantly a cover album of old blues and soul tunes by Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and Doc Pomus to name a few. That might explain why he was able to release this album so quickly after ‘Keep Me Singing,’ not a lot of that pesky songwriting to do. Ten of the records 15 tracks are cover songs. Of the ten covers songs, Van has sung “Bring It On Home” before, released on his epic live LP, ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’ and he covered “Lonely Avenue” on ‘Too Long In Exile.’ Of the five original tracks, two are songs he’s done in some form before: “Ordinary People” was included on the superb archival release ‘Philospher’s Stone’ and a slightly different version of “Fame” came out on the great record, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture.’ Van doing songs where he complains about being famous are wearing a little thin, like Ozzy always doing the obligatory “I’m Still Crazy” tune on every album. We get it, you hate being famous. I will say, all of the five originals fit seamlessly with the old blues tunes. The title track could have been a Muddy Waters tune, it sounds timeless. The only original I would say is an exception to the sound is the beautiful transcendent song, “Transformation.” It’s a classic, soaring Van song, it just seems a tad out of place amongst all this other blues and soul music.

When most people think of Van, they think of his 70’s “golden” era when he released masterpiece after masterpiece. ‘Astral Weeks’ is singularly brilliant. There’s never been anything before or since that comes close to that record. He followed that up with ‘Moondance’ and ‘His Band And The Street Choir.’ Van could do no wrong in those days. He was a wild-eyed Celtic soul man. He seemed like an Irish mystic who had wandered out of the mist with transcendent truth and “Moonshine Whiskey” on his lips. He’s gone through many phases and released a ton of music since those heady days… but much like Dylan, many people want to compare his current work to that wonderful purple patch in the 70s. I loved that part of Van’s career, but I was also a fan of his earlier, pre-solo work, with Them. While Them was basically just Van surrounded by an ever changing cast of other musicians, they were a gritty blues and soul band. It was then that Van penned his garage band classic, “Gloria,” covered by so many other artists: Patti Smith and perhaps definitively by Jimi Hendrix, just to name two. Them’s version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” was the first version of that tune I ever heard and it remains my favorite version. So when I heard that Van was doing a blues album, I couldn’t help but think maybe we’d hear some of that fire and brimstone blues of his earliest Them days, much like what the Stones did on ‘Blue And Lonesome.’ And while this isn’t quite the Van of his 20’s when he was in Them, (and who of us are like we were in our 20s) this is pretty kick ass blues.

One thing I can say about ‘Roll With the Punches’ is that Van sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. He’s clearly completely engaged. Part of that might be that he invited a bunch of friends into the studio with him. It’s like Van decided to throw a laid-back blues party. He brought in Georgie Fame (keyboards/vocals) who has been his band’s musical director for a while.  He also brought in Paul Jones, the original lead singer in Manfred Mann and harmonica player extraordinaire. He also brings in Chris Farlowe to duet on the “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” medley, which is an inspired choice – Farlowe’s first hit in the sixties was “Stormy Monday.” Pianist Jason Rebello also contributes to a few of the tunes. Most importantly, Van Morrison brought in Jeff Beck to play guitar. A few years ago, Rod Stewart tried to lure Beck back into the studio to do a blues album but Jeff quit early on in the process… he said he didn’t want to play the kind of music Rod wanted to play. And here he is playing his ass off on this blues album. I guess when Van The Man calls, you gotta answer. Beck’s guitar fuels a lot of these tunes. His guitar solo in “Bring It On Home To Me” may be the high point of the record. I love that before the solo, Van says, “alright Jeff…” “Bring It On Home” is probably the greatest moment on this album. Sam Cooke inspired so many singers from Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin to Rod Stewart and Van himself.

I really like this album, but in the interest of full-disclosure, I love the blues. And I love Van’s vocals. He sings with a passion on these songs that really resonates. The title track, “Roll With the Punches” and “Too Much Trouble” are my favorite of the original, Van-penned tracks. Those are just good ol’ blues tunes. If I have a complaint about the early part of the record, it’s that Van lets his buddies sing a verse or two (too many) on several of the early tracks. I like Chris Farlowe duetting with Van on “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” but I’m not as crazy about Georgie Fame singing entire parts of “Goin’ To Chicago.” I mean, I wanna hear Van sing. when he comes in on “Goin’ To Chicago” it’s just apparent he’s such a better singer than Fame is. Oh well, this music all has a loose, laid-back vibe, why not toss the lead vocals around the room.

“How Far From God” by Sister Rosetta Thorpe (with great boogie-woogie piano and rumbling vocal from Van) and “Benediction” by Mose Allison remind us that blues ain’t that far from gospel. I really like those tunes. Van’s own “Ordinary People” is bluesier and grittier in this incarnation with Jeff Beck’s slippery guitar, although I’ll admit I wish they’d turned off Georgie’s microphone on the harmony vocal. Towards the end of the album, the blues start to really take off. “Automobile Blues” is a great car/road blues tune and might have been the blueprint for Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat.” It rumbles along. “Mean Old World” is an old T Bone Walker song that I think Clapton might have done in Derek And The Dominos. Van does it right on this album with a piano, bass, brushed drums and Paul Jones’ wonderful harmonica solo. It’s another highlight here. The last track, “Ride On Josephine” might just be the best track on here, other than “Bring It On Home To Me,” its another rolling blues tune. Beck’s guitar is again, exceptional as is Van’s vocal on “Josephine.”

This is a very strong return after last year’s exceptional ‘Keep Me Singing.’ It appears Van is on another late career roll, similar to when he released ‘Down The Road,’ ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture,’ and ‘Magic Time.’ This album gets a strong recommendation to purchase immediately. Pour some good Irish Jameson in a tumbler and ride the blues train, baby.

Cheers!

 

 

LP Review: Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” Rock’s Curmudgeon’s Understated, Rootsy Return

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I have to admit upfront that the Rock Chick hates Van Morrison with the same passionate distaste she usually reserves for the Eagles. Oh well, no two people’s musical tastes are ever going to match up perfectly… with the Rock Chick and I, we’re a Venn Diagram… with significant overlap, thank God. I couldn’t be with anybody with crappy musical taste. I once stopped seeing a beautiful, rich girl after two dates because she liked Barry Manilow. Gads man, Barry Manilow. Somehow, I’ve digressed way off point here. Anyway, I love hard rock and heavy metal as much as the next rock and roller, but there are those moments that I need to turn the volume down. Those 3 am, everybody’s asleep and I’m out on the deck, waiting for the sun to come up and join me, with a tumbler of bourbon in my hand, ruminating about “the big questions.” Oddly, I never find any solutions out there, just more bourbon. For those moments I can’t hear screaming guitar. I need more contemplative music… like Peter Wolf’s “A Cure For Loneliness.” In a word, or in this case a name, I need some Van Morrison.

My college roomie, Drew was the one who turned me on to Van Morrison. He played me “Astral Weeks” for the first time and after that I was hooked. In his early days I’d say Van was second only to Bob Dylan as rock’s premier poet. There was something about that crazy, Irish mystic that I found irresistible. That voice… Those early records were simply transcendent. 1968’s “Astral Weeks” is as close as this pagan ever got to a religious experience. I felt like I was listening to a groovy jazz monk chanting. Van was an Irish Soul Man extraordinaire. Emphasis on the Soul… Van was a searcher, always reaching out for some truth that just exceeded his grasp. He expressed his longing for enlightenment in almost every thing he did.

“Moondance” from 1970 was his best known LP and his other masterpiece but he did a lot of other great work. “His Band And the Street Choir” is a great, great album, that was a heavy influence on both Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. Seger even covered “I’ve Been Workin'” from that LP on “Live Bullet.” It’s hard to exaggerate Van’s influence on popular music in the ’70s. “Tupelo Honey” is one of the most romantic songs I’ve ever heard. If it weren’t for the Rock Chick’s antipathy for Van, we would have danced to that song at our wedding. As it turns out, I snuck a Van song in for that first dance with “Have I Told You Lately,” but I used the Rod Stewart version.

That purple creative patch that Van had during the late 60’s, early 70’s drew to a close around the time he recorded “St Dominic’s Preview” in ’72. That was another set of mostly long tracks full of mystic poetry. “Listen To the Lion” still blows me away. Shortly after that he recorded one of the greatest live albums ever, “Too Late To Stop Now.” Do yourself a favor and pick that one up. Turn it up loud and just…groove, baby. He called his band in those days the Caledonia Soul Orchestra and they sounded like nobody else.

After that period Van’s music was kind of hit and miss for me. It’s hard to sustain that kind of creative genius. I know he went through a divorce somewhere in there. Like Dylan, he even went through a Christian period, although not quite as overt and strident as Dylan. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise, the spiritual had always mixed with the sensual in Van’s music. But as I said, it was always a little inconsistent for me. For every great album like “Poetics Champions Compose,” or “Enlightenment” there was a “How Long Has This Been Going On,” or worse, “Days Like This.” I sort of consigned Van to the past. I continued to cherish those early albums but gave up on hearing anything new and exciting from him. His personality turned sour and he became the quintessential curmudgeon. I was waiting for him to record a song entitled “You Kids Get Off of My Lawn.” His latest interview with Rolling Stone can only be described as “prickly.” He’s always got that porkpie hat on… It’s like he’s channeling Boris from the old Bullwinkle cartoons. Bitter party of Van…your table is ready.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere Van released “Down The Road” in 2002. It was jazzy, bluesy and Van sounded really committed. It’s like suddenly he was focused and trying again. He even evinced a sense of humor on that record on songs like “Whatever Happened To PJ Proby.” Van wasn’t breaking any new, transcendent ground here, he was just playing great music. He continued that streak with 2003’s “What’s Wrong With This Picture,” another jazzy, rootsy album. It was official in my mind, Van was on a hot streak. This was the kind of late career stuff that inspired B&V. He capped all of that off with “Magic Time” which was a return to those mystic, searching grand songs of his early period. “Magic Time” really blew me away. “Gypsy In My Soul” from that record is a song they should play at my funeral.

His follow up album, “Keep It Simple” was still strong but it paled in comparison to the three preceding LPs. Other than a great live performance of the entire “Astral Weeks” album recorded at the Hollywood Bowl I slipped away from Van again. He put out a critically lauded album, “Born To Sing: No Plan B” but I thought, if he couldn’t bother to come up with a better album title than that, why bother. If Van wasn’t going to make the effort, why should I? He followed that up with “Duets: Reworking the Catalog,” which screamed “cashing in,” although the critics were very kind to that record as well. It wasn’t like he was recording with Lady Gaga or any current pop singer. He mostly recorded with old friends and did obscure deep album tracks so perhaps my judgment on that LP was a bit harsh. I did pick up the song “Streets of Arklow” from that disc, the duet with Mick Hucknall from Simply Red – and believe me, I know how that sentence looks (Simply Red?) – and it’s an amazing song. I almost want to put on a kilt when I hear that one… almost.

I was in my car a few weeks ago, with the satellite radio on when I heard, “Too Late” a rollicking bluesy thing from Van’s new album “Keep Me Singing.” I really liked that song. It was catchy, well sung and gave me hope for another great LP from Van. I must admit, he’s delivered just that. This is not a party record, or a screaming guitar album. It’s Van’s usual mix of jazz, blues and Sinatra-era pop standards, a truly rootsy brew that is great late night music. Listening to “Keep Me Singing” makes me feel like I just walked into the basement music joint in Westport, Blaney’s, and the band is grooving. Van’s music is so anachronistic these songs could have been recorded 40 years ago or 40 days ago. Just hearing this album, makes me want to go up on the roof and pour a bourbon and it’s not even 3am.

There is a palpable sense of longing on this album. It’s not melancholic, but Van is clearly missing someone or some period of time, now distant and past. “Every Time I See A River” and “Out In the Cold” are both great “I still miss someone” songs. “Out In the Cold” is a true stand out here. “Memory Lane” again looks to the past as the title would obviously suggest. “In Tiburon” harkens back to Van’s halcyon San Francisco period as he name checks people and spots where he used to hang and “Going Down to Bangor” also is tied to Belfast memories. Van actually quotes the old spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…” in the great song “Holy Guardian Angel.” While this all sounds like sad stuff, it doesn’t come across that way. The title track is another of Van’s songs about reaching out for something just out of his grasp. His voice is spectacular as always. His “instrument” has aged quite well. I love his bluesy growl on “Going Down to Bangor” and “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword.” I just wish John Lee Hooker was still alive to have done one of those with Van as a duet…

While the theme here seems to be looking back, perhaps longingly, it’s with a certain joy. I don’t sense regret here. It’s more of an acknowledgement of the impact the past can have on you, on all of us really. It’s all heady stuff and really enjoyable music, if you dig music grounded in the traditions of jazz and blues. This is a triumph for Van to put out something this strong at this stage in the game. I always worry about craft over creativity with Van, but in this case, creativity wins out. There’s passion on this record.

Pick up “Keep Me Singing,” pour something strong after everyone has gone to bed and head out to the deck… those “big questions” need contemplation and this is just the soundtrack you need.

Cheers!

On The Mellow End: Norah Jones & Van Morrison Release New Singles, LPs On The Way

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I’m as much of a “Hard Rock” person as anybody, but every now and then you need to turn it down a bit. Actually I’m just a fan of music in general, I just mostly talk about the rockers. There are a couple of new songs, preceding albums, that have come out lately that I feel necessary to comment on… These aren’t party songs, or hard rock songs, these are late night songs. These are tumbler full of Blanton’s bourbon, sitting on the porch songs. These are get your belt off and hold me close songs… Putting on either of these songs could lead you anywhere…

First and foremost is Norah Jones’ new tune “Carry On” from her upcoming album, “Day Breaks.” This is a return to her early, earthy, jazzy style of “Come Away With Me.” It’s as sexy as Hell. This woman could sing the phone book and make it sound great. If you can’t get laid with Norah Jones on the stereo, you can’t get laid… More to come on this as the LP comes out….This song is all piano and brilliant vocal. It’s the closest thing she’s done to her first album in a long time. I think this is a great return to her early sound. I will admit, I’ve loved everything she’s done, experimentally and other wise…. Check out the Little Willies, her great, country side project.

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What to think about Van Morrison…We’d all love to think he’s got another “Moondance” or even a “Tupelo Honey” left in him, but who knows. He hit a hot streak starting with the “Down The Road” album and kept it going through “Magic Time.” Then he phoned it in with “Keep It Simple.” He followed up with the fabulous “Astral Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl” which was simply transcendent. Yes, he was revisiting an old album, but the passion of that performance was almost as great as the original LP. His last two albums, oddly named, left me cold… although the duet, “Streets of Arklow” with Mick Hucknell might be one of the greatest duets ever, and it slowly restored my faith…

I have no idea what his new LP “Keep Me Singing” will bring, but for some odd reason, I remain hopeful. The lead single, “Too Late” has me very optimistic. It’s an oddly hopeful, “it’s not too late” mid tempo, train-tempo-chugging tune that I really like. It’s the first Van tune that I thought might signal he’s trying since “Magic Time.” I get it, he did two or three great albums and no one noticed, why try… but it appears he’s coming back with a very strong album. These are the type of albums that B&V were founded on, strong albums in the later careers of great artists…I’m not sure if this will be a great album, but it’s a great first single…

Again, these aren’t great party songs… but if you’re having a night cap and someone is in their underwear, this might just tweak the mood in your favor… and if you’re like me, you can always use that help…

Cheers!