Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Van Morrison released 8 albums in the first decade of the new millennium. Since this corresponded with a period where I was less of a completist than in the past, I’m actually missing 3 of these albums. One of them, You Win Again (2000), was recorded with Linda Gail Lewis (Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister). Based on what I’ve read about this album, I would probably enjoy it, but since the purpose of this blog is to revisit existing records in my collection, that’ll have to wait for another time. I also missed his most recent studio album, Keep It Simple (2008), as well as his latest live album, Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl (2009). If/when I hear any of these albums, I’ll come back here to post my thoughts.
On The Skiffle Sessions (2000), Van teamed with legendary British musician Lonnie Donegan (of “Rock Island Line” fame) and stand-up bass/trombone player Chris Barber, and together they pay tribute to the skiffle sound of the pre-Beatles era. To be honest, I’m no aficionado of this style. I’ve been familiar with the previously mentioned Lonnie Donegan classic for years, as well as the neo-skiffle sound of ‘80s Scottish group Fairground Attraction, but that’s about it. This style combined elements of blues, folk, country & jazz, and featured acoustic guitars along with washboards, kazoos, and other inexpensive & makeshift instruments. In fact, an early incarnation of The Beatles (as The Quarrymen) was part of the British skiffle craze in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
This album was recorded live over two nights in 1998. I’m not sure how authentic this is, especially with Barber’s trombone featured throughout, as well as Dr. John on piano for two songs, but you can clearly hear how much fun they were all having. The best tracks for me were “Don’t You Rock Me Daddio,” “Frankie And Johnny,” “The Ballad Of Jesse James” and album closer “I Wanna Go Home” (an alternate name for “Sloop John B,” a tune popularized by The Beach Boys).
When I first heard Down The Road (2002), it felt like a true return to classic form, with great songs and Van sounding vibrant and enthusiastic. I made copies of the CD for a couple of friends, wanting them to confirm my belief that this was as good as anything he had done for at least 20 years. Unfortunately, I never found anyone who agreed with me about this, and after listening to it again a few times this past week, it doesn’t stick out from his catalog as much as I had initially thought. Sure, there are some great songs here, including “Meet Me In The Summertime,” “Hey Mr. DJ” (with another nod to Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party”), “What Makes The Irish Heart Beat” and the slow, slinky blues of “Whatever Happened To PJ Proby?” but we’ve heard it all before. His version of the classic “Georgia On My Mind” has vocal cues similar to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” Do you think Van may be a Sam Cooke fan? Well, if you’re going to pay homage, choose the best.
Van recorded one album for iconic jazz label Blue Note, What’s Wrong With This Picture? (2003), before moving to the more mainstream Geffen label for Magic Time (2005). Both of these albums are good, but they’re interchangeable. One might think that the Blue Note record would be jazzier, but they both have equal amounts of jazz & blues, and don’t really stand apart from a lot of the albums he released over the previous decade. A nice walking bass line drives “Whinin Boy Moan” on What’s Wrong With This Picture, although he appears to be doing the whining (about how difficult life can be when you’re famous) on “Goldfish Bowl.” He seems to be having an existential crisis on the pretty shuffle of “Meaning Of Loneliness,” and I really like when the music shifts gears at around the 5:20 mark. I especially enjoyed his slow blues version of “Saint James Infirmary.” All previous versions I’ve heard have been more up-tempo, so this was a nice change of pace. My introduction to this song was from an early episode of Saturday Night Live, when Lily Tomlin sang it with the studio band (led by Howard Shore), who were all dressed as nurses. I also recall a brief parody of the song from an Allan Sherman record.
On Magic Time, the Sinatra song “This Love Of Mine” is as jazzy as anything from the previous album. “Just Like Greta,” another song about the pitfalls of being famous & trying to get away from it all, is a highlight. Here he references a previous album title when he sings, “I’ve been too long in exile.” The title track is another nostalgic look back to the past (“let me go back, for a while, to that magic time”). There’s not a lot to say about these albums. If this is your first exposure to Van’s music, there’s a lot to enjoy, but after listening to 30+ albums, there was nothing special about them to these ears.
The most recent album I own is Pay The Devil (2006), a true Country album (with a capital “C”). There are three Van originals along with songs made famous by Hank Williams (Sr.), George Jones, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty and more. I already knew a number of these songs in their original versions (especially the Hank Williams & Webb Pierce songs, thanks to early exposure to these artists by my father). None of these would replace the originals, but I’m sure Van was merely trying to pay homage to a genre and artists he loved. His originals blend seamlessly with the covers, and the album would be an enjoyable introduction to this music for anyone who wasn’t already exposed to it. There are no songs to single out here, as I enjoyed them all and would always revisit this album in its entirety. One of my issues with the previous two albums is that they’re too long, well over 60 minutes each. This one is much more succinct (under 50 minutes), and it benefits from this brevity.
I believe that’s 35 Van Morrison albums revisited in just over 3 weeks. It’s been quite a trip, and the only thing left now is to spend some time with Astral Weeks. As I mentioned in my first post (VAN MORRISON Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist), I’ve always liked this album but never thought it ranked among Van’s best, let alone giving it the legendary status as one of the greatest albums of all time that many critics & fans have bestowed upon it. I’ll check in next week with my updated thoughts, and do a final summary on the Van Morrison catalog.