Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

VAN MORRISON Part 8 – Philosopher Stoned At The End Of The 1990’s

In the last half of the ‘90s, Van Morrison released four new albums as well as a 2-CD rarities compilation. He continued to cover the same musical ground as usual, with a couple of small tweaks to keep his fans (and possibly himself) engaged. The biggest tweak was found on How Long Has This Been Going On (1995), credited to Van Morrison With Georgie Fame & Friends. This was his first and only foray into straight-ahead jazz, as opposed to his occasional jazzy leanings on prior albums. There’s nothing groundbreaking or earth-shattering here, but I don’t think that’s what he was going for. Other than four Van-written songs, including an excellent “All Saint’s Day” (originally on Hymns To The Silence), the remaining 10 songs are covers.

A highlight of this album is “Centerpiece,” a duet between Van and jazz singer Annie Ross. I’ve heard songs from her ‘50s/’60s jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, although I don’t own anything by them. Her voice still sounds strong more than 30 years after that group’s heyday. This performance reminds me a little of Manhattan Transfer. I also enjoyed the title track, as well as “Your Mind Is On Vacation” (written by Van’s soon-to-be collaborator, Mose Allison). Sad to say, but I recognized the melody for pop standard “Blues In The Night” from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the vulture (named Beaky Buzzard) sings “My mama done told me, son bring something for dinner.” It’s nice to know I was getting my musical education from cartoons so early in life. All in all this is a very enjoyable album.

For Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison (1996), Van teamed with Georgie Fame and Ben Sidran to celebrate the jazz/blues/pop songwriting of the nearly 70-year-old Mose Allison, who also appears on a couple of songs. He’s best known to rock fans as the writer of “Young Man Blues,” famously recorded by The Who on their Live At Leeds LP. One of the most striking aspects of this album is its small combo feel. There are horn parts on a few songs, but mostly it sounds like a small quartet (piano, Hammond organ, bass & drums), with the three credited artists sharing lead vocals throughout.

It’s solid from beginning to end, with “Benediction” being a fun highlight. When all three vocalists sing “When push comes to shove, thank God for self love,” are they singing of internal strength when life gets you down, or something a little more secretive & personal? I’ll have to remember to ask Mr. Allison if I ever meet him. There’s also a nice duet between Van & Mose on album closer “Perfect Moment” where their voices are slightly out of synch, giving the song a late-night-after-a-few-drinks feel. It’s a “perfect” way to close out an enjoyable, low-key album.

On the next two studio albums, The Healing Game (1997) and Back On Top (1999), Van returns to familiar territory. They’re both well-produced, well-played records with good songs and a few highlights on each. I want to single out backing vocalist Brian Kennedy, who had appeared on several Van albums going back to at least 1994’s live A Night In San Francisco. I have a couple of his solo albums and I’ve always liked his voice, even when the material is questionable. His harmonies on these recent Van albums are wonderful, its pristine tone blending perfectly with Van’s rougher-sounding vocals. On The Healing Game, “Burning Ground” is a good upbeat song with a nice horn chart, and the album closes with the strong spiritual title track, including great call-and-response vocals. The two most enjoyable tracks on Back On Top are “Philosophers Stone,” a nice ballad that shows Van on another spiritual quest, and “Precious Time” which bounces along like his early-70s work. Even his voice sounds younger here. Neither of these albums is essential, although there’s a lot to like on both.

Between these last two albums, Polydor released The Philosopher’s Stone (1998), a 2-CD collection featuring 30 previously unreleased recordings. The majority of them (23) were recorded during his peak years in the 1970’s. The average fan might not care about such rarities, but there are treasures to be found throughout. Most of Disc 1 sounds like a lost album from the early ‘70s. Although not as eclectic as his existing albums, it’s certainly just as enjoyable and rewarding, and bears repeated listening. My biggest complaint about this package is the lack of historical information. Other than lyrics, musician credits and recording dates (which apparently were not all accurate), there are no photos or liner notes to put the recordings in perspective. Why were these left off prior releases? Were certain melodies or lyrical ideas eventually used on other songs? I would’ve found such information useful, although it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the music.

“Wonderful Remark” is a great song that could’ve fit on any of his classic albums. “Don’t Worry About Tomorrow” features more fantastic Fats Domino/Dr. John-inspired piano work from Jef Labes. “Try For Sleep” and “Twilight Zone” show Van trying out his falsetto vocals, with a nod to Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” on the former. “Naked In The Jungle” has to be the funkiest thing in Van’s catalog, with an excellent Maceo Parker-esque sax from Van himself. Good stuff. “Western Plain” (written by folk/blues great Lead Belly), with its jazzy/funky groove, is possibly the least country-sounding cowboy song in the history of recorded music. Alternate versions of “Flamingoes Fly,” “Bright Side Of The Road” and “Real Real Gone” show that Van knew what he was doing when he chose the final versions for the original albums. Amazingly, there’s nothing terrible here, as is usually the case on this kind of b-sides/rarities compilation.

I’ve got five more albums to revisit from Van’s catalog, followed by a re-appraisal of Astral Weeks, and then it’s time to move on to the next artist.

2 comments on “VAN MORRISON Part 8 – Philosopher Stoned At The End Of The 1990’s

  1. Alan Cohen
    April 16, 2011

    Hey, I wouldn’t knock the cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, as a lot of us got their early classical music education in Brahm’s, Wagner (the famous “Kill the wabbit” episode), and other composers from Warner Bros. cartoons. I also learned about the opera “Carmen” from Gilligan’s Island, Mighty Mouse was like an operetta, and even Batman (the Batusi) and The Flinstones were musically savvy. I never knew where that Beaky Buzzard riff was from, so thanks, and leave it the “The Simpsons” of their time to plant the seed in our young minds.


    • KamerTunesBlog
      April 16, 2011

      Hi Alan. I definitely wasn’t knocking cartoons. It’s just a little embarrassing that a lot of our exposure to “culture” came from kid’s entertainment. The Looney Tunes cartoons were probably the best at that, weaving in musical & literary references that continued popping up throughout our adult lives (“A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” anyone?). I got the sense that these kinds of references were missing throughout the ’80s, but since The Simpsons began there have been numerous cartoons & other kid’s shows that include many adult references that children will carry into adulthood. I wonder how many of them will become Van Morrison fans.


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