Kronomyth 7.5: MORE BUCKS FOR BANG. The late Bert Berns’ much-maligned Bang Records had now released three albums from the material that Van Morrison recorded with them in 1967, including Blowin’ Your Mind (1967) and The Best of Van Morrison (1970). This compilation features five tracks that appeared on the first, one unique to the second (“It’s All Right”) and two early versions of songs that would appear on his breakthrough Astral Weeks, “Madame George” and “Beside You.” Now, those last two tracks may have piqued your interest, and well they should. They’re radically different from the jazzy arrangements featured on Astral Weeks; “Madame George” appears far more playful here, lending credence to Morrison’s assertion that the song was originally intended to be called Madame Joy, while “Beside You” is nailed to a concrete arrangement. In a sense, T.B. Sheets offers an alternate view of what Blowin’ Your Mind might have been. Fortunately for us, Berns left “Madame George” and “Beside You” in the bank vaults, and the gossamer versions we know from Astral Weeks exist today. Although it’s product, T.B. Sheets isn’t a bad listen by any measure. Morrison may be a bit in the bard’s shadow here, often sounding like Highway 61 Re-Revisited—not surprising given that some of the same musicians (Paul Griffin, Russell Savakas) appear on both sessions—but delivered in a stream of spiritual consciousness that approaches a soulful sermon at times. Given that many missed Morrison’s debut the first time around, the encore performances of “Brown Eyed Girl,” “He Ain’t Give You None” and “T.B. Sheets” were welcome at the time, and the compilation’s absorption into the Columbia catalog has added an air of legitimacy to the release since. If you’re intent on blowin’ some cash on Morrison’s pre-Astral days, I might even recommend this over Blowin’ Your Mind, since every Van fan owes it to themselves to hear these versions of “Madame George” and “Beside You.”
Kronomyth 8.0: ARC OF A DIVERSE ARTIST. Co-produced with Steve Winwood, Fierce Heart is a conscious attempt to channel Winwood’s success with synthesizers into Jim Capaldi’s career. The result is surprisingly effective; in fact, this might be the best solo album he’s ever recorded. Capaldi doesn’t rely completely on synthesizers, but blends them into the approach taken on his last record, Let The Thunder Cry. The songs are once again reassuringly familiar; “That’s Love,” “I’ll Always Be Your Fool,” Living On The Edge” and “Runaway” use established rock motifs. Capaldi’s not trying to rewrite the book of rock, simply add his two cents to the conversation. The songs this time favor love over social change; the funky “Don’t Let Them Control You” (a rewrite of a Brazilian song, “Olhos Coloridos”) is the lone agitator in an otherwise smooth collection. The album—his first for new label Atlantic—was his highest charting since his debut, Oh How We Danced, and produced two hits in “That’s Love” and “Living On The Edge.” Although the year started off well enough for Capaldi and Winwood, it would end with the deaths of Chris Wood and Reebop Kwaku Baah (both of whom were also born in the same year, 1944). Still, Fierce Heart remains something of a high point in Jim Capaldi’s career and a sort of late-season fruition of his partnership with Winwood. It’s not as heavy as some of his other pop/rock albums, but it may be the best argument for his strengths as a singer/songwriter. If Winwood is your cup of tea, Fierce Heart is your capaldi. And that’s no bull. (You see, the cover has a picture of a bull on it and… eh, nevermind.)
These are some of the choicest van morsels, an informed selection that includes the obvious hits and then wisely screens through a wide career for overlooked gold. Ordinarily, greatest hits compilations take the predictable tack of following an artist’s singles through the years, but Van Morrison’s history doesn’t shake out like that. Some of his most indelible music (e.g., “Moondance”) was never released on a single, while many of his singles contained second-rate songs (“Call Me Up In Dreamland,” “Come Running”). The Best of Van Morrison finds an interesting solution to the problem: throw out order altogether, don’t worry about balancing out an uneven career and pick the songs that stick with you when all is said and sung. Of course it contains what you would expect: “Moondance,” “Domino,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Wild Night” and “Jackie Wilson Said.” But you could turn on a radio and hear those songs. It’s in the unexpected where Best excels, digging back to include three tracks from Them (including the seminal “Gloria”), choosing lesser-known treasures like “Wonderful Remark,” “Sweet Thing” and “Full Force Gale,” then spreading them out like a rich, multicolored banquet. In order to find the most flattering angle of the multifaceted Morrison, The Best Of approaches him anew with each song, carefully placing very different tracks alongside one another to illuminate his catalog with contrast and color. The breezy “Bright Side of the Road,” unbearably intense “Gloria” and soulful “Moondance” quickly lay the cornerstones for the church of Van, and for the next fifty minutes old friends and new acquaintances file in. The compact disc includes two extra tracks, “Queen of the Slipstream” and “Dweller on the Threshold,” both of them hailing from the wild sea of uncharted singles that might have shipwrecked this enterprise. Instead, The Best of Van Morrison is remarkably smooth sailing through a stormy career and a great example of what happens when you chart these journeys from the heart. (Cartographers: note that the LP release features only 16 tracks, the cassette version 18 tracks and the CD version a bounty of twenty.)
Kronomyth 23.0: REAL REAL GOOD. The continuing musical pilgrimage of Van Morrison has provided a surprisingly smooth ride for such a mercurial character. You expect the caraVan to grow weary, falter, linger too long by pools of rest, yet the energy and conviction are faithfully renewed on every album. Enlightenment is one of his stronger efforts in the middle-period canon, led by the wonderful “Real Real Gone,” a song written 10 years earlier that connects back to the original wellspring of joy from whence “Domino” and all the other black-and-white beauties came. The remainder of the record is thoughtful, careful, spiritual. The Morrison of Enlightenment has found Jesus (“Youth of 1,000 Summers,” “See Me Through”) and even inner peace (“So Quiet In Here”) but is still searching for complete enlightenment. It’s a journey, of course, and Van seems to be moving forward. The songs are intertwined with the usual Celtic mythmaking, whether it’s the references to Avalon or the loyalty to youthful idols (James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis), and in Morrison it might be said that man’s dual nature of earth-bound and Heavenbound resound most clearly. But that’s such a heavy thought for an early morning, isn’t it? (and the baby is fussing and the dawn is fleeting and the old man in the chair must mind his mousewheel and make money not words). Enlightenment has its prickly moments, none pricklier than a duet with Irish poet Paul Durcan, whose reading on “In The Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll” offers a window into what Laurie Anderson would sound like if reincarnated as an old Irishman. It could have been much pricklier, though; a point underscored by the alternative takes of “Enlightenment” and “So Quiet In Here.” Enlightenment will renew the faithful and remind us that some things, like our relationship with God and certain expensive and unpronounceable cheeses, grow better with age.
Kronomyth 31.0: DID YE GET HEALED? The photo shoot features Van and his band dressed like thugs at a funeral, fair indication that no one is getting robbed today. The hairs on the back of my neck may no longer stand up when the man sings, but little of my body works the way it should anymore. Fortunately, our man from Belfast is still peddling the same powerful tonic, even if his pipes have grown a bit more creaky, his outlook a bit more cranky, his appearance a bit more creased and crumpled. The opening “Rough God Goes Riding” is the kind of chimerical creature that Van’s fans delight in: poetry (Yeats) and Christianity (Revelations) intertwined into a mystical, musical rite. During the Nineties, Morrison assembled a cadre of crackerjack players including a stellar horn section, four-man rhythm crew, piano, organ, guitar and vocalists. Take them out of the equation and Morrison is unleavened bread, which has ever been the case. Add them to the mix and they perfectly spice up Van’s observations on life and love with crisp accompaniment, soulful horns and sweet voices. There’s certainly an element of nostalgia to Van Morrison these days, if only because the man has so much history behind him, and you have the sense on The Healing Game (and most latter-day VM records) that Van is torn between sweet remembrance (“If You Love Me,” “The Healing Game”) and sweaty resistance to age (“Burning Ground,” “Fire In The Belly”). His voice is no longer the commanding presence it once was, but that Morrison finds himself at the center of so much good music year after year is no accident. He is a catalyst for great things, a lone wolf that others would eagerly follow, a lightning rod in a tempest of talent. Rhythm and blues and soul, Van’s preferred mode of communication, may belong to a bygone era, but the music of Van Morrison belongs to all of us. We listen, and we are healed again.
Kronomyth 10.0: BIG BAND AID. 20 years ago, Jools Holland seemed fated to be a footnote—the original keyboard player in a band (Squeeze) that had already gone through three of them. And then there was his first solo album, Jools Holland and His Millionaires, which was released as Squeeze stunned the world with their retirement, turning every head back to Misters Difford and Tilbrook. Fate, however, has a funny sense of humor, even if it takes a while to reach the punchline. Fast-forward 10 years and Holland is an international star as the host of his own highly popular musical television show, Later… With Jools Holland. Later… brought a who’s who of musical personalities into contact with Jools, many of whom joined Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra (a big band built specifically by Holland) for live jam sessions during the program. This album is the first in a series that pairs Holland and his Orchestra in the studio with a rock & rolodex that anyone would envy: Sting, George Harrison, Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, Steve Winwood, Jamiroquai, Eric Clapton, and I wouldn’t dare “et cetera” anybody else but there are more stars where those came from. Usually, you don’t get an album like this unless somebody is either dying or starving. A good half of the album has Holland and his Band backing the artists on interpretations of songs by Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, Billy Preston, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Jonny Mercer, Screaming Jay Hawkins and others. The other half—the better half, surprisingly—is original material cowritten in most cases with Mr. Holland himself: “Valentine Moon,” “Orange and Lemons Again,” “All That You Are.” The styles are as eclectic as the artists themselves and include ska, soul, blues and rock. And far from the perfunctory performances you could rightly expect from an album like this, many of the artists sound rejuvenated; Dr. John, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison, Paul Carrack and John Cale seem absolutely energized in the studio. I hadn’t expected much from this disc, certainly not 22 tracks of new, quality music, but Big Band’s got some big hands to hold it all together. Looks like we’ll need to leave some pretty big margins at the bottom for this footnote, since Holland is living large.