Monday, February 29, 2016
Mellow-voiced and poignant, Woods offers up a batch of songs with deep truths. They can be sad, wise, thoughtful, but they are never slight. That's led to some pretty serious respect of late, including Nashville covers by Tim McGraw (Portland, Maine) and Leaving Nashville by Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum, the closing cut here. He's also been writing cuts with Matt Andersen, two of them on his brand-new one, and the pair are touring the country together.
Despite his growing status, Woods is keeping the songs sparse and straight-forward. An acoustic feel is kept through the whole record, and the colouring is done with light brush strokes, a shot of pedal steel here, an airy violin joining later. It all helps keep that thoughtful vibe going, I'd say the killer cut is Leaving Nashville, which shows what a talent he has for mood and details, especially heartbreak.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
There will be tons and tons of Bowie releases and reissues for the next couple of years, and for now, everything is being treated as equal in the emotional aftermath of his passing. Just watch what you buy. The new one, Blackstar, won't be for everyone, and I'll argue there are a few albums post-1982 that aren't for anyone. There's no denying the heyday however, and the first big burst of Bowie reissues has arrived, from that great first period.
After a few false starts in the '60's, Bowie finally started making solid albums in 1969, with his self-titled album, also known as Man of Words, Man of Music, and later, Space Oddity. That run, up until 1973's Pin Ups, is now available in new, heavyweight vinyl pressings. If you're not familiar, that is six albums, including the legendary The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and the quirky and fun Hunky Dory. The others are Aladdin Sane, and The Man Who Sold The World.
The pressing are fabulous, and certainly if you're a vinyl fan used to the thin old RCA pressings from the 70's, you'll be pleased with the upgrade, the high-quality jackets, and all the original inserts and lyric sheets. These use the remasters prepared for last year's Five Years box set, so you're getting the best they have to offer. Ziggy's a must, Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane aren't far behind, I don't mind Pin Ups, the all-covers album of '60's beat hits, and Man Who Sold the World has its fans certainly. The David Bowie album has its critics, but I actually prefer it to Man Who Sold The World, with its quirky songs such as The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud and Memory of a Free Festival. Start with Ziggy, go from there.
The most exciting release though, is the first-ever appearance of the set Bowie At The Beeb on vinyl. First released in 2000, its a collection of tracks recorded at the BBC between 1968 and 1972. Bowie was a favourite with lots of BBC producers, so he got several sessions, certainly more than somebody at his level of fame early on. Originally spread over two CD's, this is now a four-LP set, again on heavyweight vinyl, in a fancy box with a lift-off cover, and a full, album-sized book, 20 pages. I haven't seen a glossy book like this in a while, and boy, it's great to have it in album-size, it really feels like a deluxe package.
Better yet collectors, the set is even upgraded with two new tracks not on the original CD set, There's a 1971 recording of Oh! You Pretty Things, featuring just Bowie and Mick Ronson, and a previously-lost recording of The Supermen, from March 1970 with The Hype, his pre-Spiders band. If you haven't heard this set, I recommend it highly. Often these BBC sets are kind of bland, and I even get a little bored with The Beatles Beeb sessions. Because the radio station was only allowed a small amount of "needle time" in the '60's and '70's, as playing records was called there, they would bring in groups to re-record their songs and play these sessions. Usually the bands would do as close a copy as possible. Bowie however, was keen to use the studio time to experiment, have fun, and get into the live feel of the recordings. So these are quite different at times.
For a lengthy 1971 session for John Peel, he brought an ensemble called David Bowie and Friends, with the future Spiders (still called Ronno at that point), the guitar player from the band Arnold Corns, and some extra singers. He lets them sing a verse each on It Ain't Easy, does an unreleased song called Looking For A Friend, which Peel says will be an Arnold Corns single (it wasn't), and features the song Bombers, which was slated for, but cut from Hunky Dory. On other shows, he would do live concert favourites Waiting For The Man and White Light/White Heat.
Best of all though, are the several songs from Ziggy Stardust, where he really lets the band loose. They had been tearing up the country with these tracks, and hearing the band do them with terrific solos, louder bass and drums, and Bowie's full-blown command, gives you even more appreciation of his tremendous early peak. Yes, this is going to cost you a bundle on vinyl, but you're also going to love it..
Friday, February 26, 2016
Rundgren is, was, one of these unstoppable one-man studio marvels. He could, and did, do everything. He wrote, sang, played every instrument, engineered and produced. Several of his works feature no other performers. When he was on, he was brilliant. But he was also easily bored by the normal and popular, and had a habit of shooting himself in the foot commercially, just when he was clicking with the public. He had a fabulous, blue-eyed soul voice, and his best love songs were top hits. He had the golden touch for making pop-rock records, and not just his own. His productions include Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell, Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band, XTC's Skylarking, and even Ian & Sylvia's classic Great Speckled Bird album. But just when you start to love the guy, he'll put out something infuriating, which turns you off for a time.
Perhaps this warts-and-all, very reasonably-priced set ($75!) is the best way to approach him. There's something great on every album here, but a couple only have one or two excellent songs. Most are very good, and a couple of certifiably brilliant. You can have it all, and ignore the crazy bits.
Rundgren came out of the band Nazz at the end of the '60's, influenced by great studio 45's of the day, Philadelphia soul, and British prog-pop act The Move. After he left Nazz, he formed Runt, with Hunt and Tony Sales (Bowie, Iggy Pop). Runt quickly become just Todd though, and essentially marks the start of his solo career here. The first album, Runt, contained the quirky Top 20 hit We Gotta Get You a Woman, and saw him delve into well-executed and intricate pop cuts. The next album, 1971's Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, saw him play almost all the instruments, and is a piano ballad-heavy set, a little too lush at times, so busy with changes and complications it made your head spin. But repeated listening brings out the brilliance.
With all this music spilling out of him, the next step was a sprawling double album, 1972's Something/Anything. It's his masterpiece, the one you want if you only get one. It's home to his biggest hits, Hello It's Me, I Saw The Light and It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference. There's also the grand power-pop number, Couldn't I Just Tell You, the equal of anything Big Star or Badfinger produced. With enough room over two records, Rundgren was also able to explore his oddball character on a few cuts, including Piss Aaron, kind of a gross version of Smokin' In The Boys Room, and Wolfman Jack, a tribute to the D.J. For now, the wackiness was under control. Some harder rock was heard in Black Maria, and all together it was tour de force.
The success went to his head, or gave him freedom to do what he wanted, depending on your point of view. Up next was A Wizard, A True Star, which was a sprawling mess, almost an hour in length on one album. Many of the songs were short, piling into one another, with strange lyrics and attempts at humour. There's a cover of Never Never Land from Peter Pan, and a growing interest in synthesizers, which still sounded like crap in those days. He was also developing his progressive side, which would soon blossom in his side band, Utopia. Apparently the album has been influential on new psych bands such as Tame Impala and Hot Chip, but they are a lot more accessible.
A year later came another double album, just called Todd. It continued the synth obsession, with several instrumentals, and goes down the prog path further as well. Rundgren seemed bound and determined to turn his back on pop numbers, but luckily he counted help himself, and there are a couple of cuts of note, A Dream Goes On Forever and Izzat Love? He does a Gilbert & Sullivan cut, and more bizarre lyrics. During this time, Rundgren was becoming more and more like Frank Zappa, part perverse, part maniacal genius.
Am I being harsh? Not yet. That's for 1975's Initiation. This time, Rundgren also added his fascination with spirituality, and did an entire side of Eastern religion-inspired synth rock with titles about cosmic fire and such. This is the one that lasts over an hour on one slab of vinyl. Side two is torture. Side one has a couple of interesting cuts, but Born To Synthesize is not one of them.
Perhaps the flagging fortunes of these mid-'70's albums pushed him back to more accessible sounds, or maybe he figured that he could put the other stuff into his Utopia albums. Whatever the cause, 1976's Faithful saw him return to easier-on-the-ear music, but still with tons of tricks and turns. It was also quite the concept: side one saw him choose six big hit records by others, and essentially remake them in the exact same way as the originals. This was a lot harder to do back then, without all the sampling and such, and it took a brilliant producer as well as artist to copy the intricacies of the songs here. He chose the best of the best productions: Strawberry Fields Forever and Rain by The Beatles, Good Vibrations, If Six Was Nine by Hendrix, plus Yardbirds and Dylan cuts. His Good Vibrations even made the Top 40, mostly because it sounded just like the #1 hit of 1966. Side two was all new cuts, but this time he was ready with his best rock songs, and this is one of his best albums.
Buoyed by that success, and the parallel interest in Utopia, Rundgren followed with another pop-oriented album, which proved his biggest success since Something/Anything. The Hermit of Mink Hollow featured the medium-sized hit Can We Still Be Friends, later covered by Robert Palmer, and a little bit of everything there is to love about Todd. There was some decent humour in Onomatopoeia, some hard-hitting social commentary on Bag Lady, lots of made-for-radio work on side one, and more adventuresome play on side 2, but all within reason for a broader audience. The results were widely appreciated. With that success in tow, everybody smelled opportunity, and in 1978 that meant a double-live album. Everybody did them in those days, they sold great and made big profits. Todd made a big deal out of it, coming up with the concept of recording in small clubs in three different cities, and inviting lots of special guests, calling it Back To The Bars. And of course, it flopped. That's despite the presence of Stevie Nicks, Hall & Oates, Rick Derringer, Edgar Winter, Utopia and others.
Here's why: Todd's complex studio music is so precise, it's hard to reproduce and capture in a live recording. So it was a pretty heavy listen, and he refused to doctor it in the studio (as most live albums were, even from the most respected of acts, like Little Feat). There were no hit singles pulled from it (such as The Eagles did with Seven Bridges Road), they didn't use Stevie Nicks in a duet, it was really for hard-core fans at best. Now, after listening to this whole box, that may indeed be you, but your average rock fan of 1978 went back to Fleetwood Mac.
Utopia took most of Todd's attention for the next couple of years, and when he returned in 1981 with Healing, the pop excitement of Hermit of Mink Hollow was gone, and he was back to synths and spirituality. It's similar to the Initiation album, with a lengthy side two examining a healing path, if you're interested in that kind of thing lyrically. Side one had a couple of okay cuts, the title track and Golden Goose, which might be about his tendency to sabotage his sales figures. With that in mind, easily the most commercial cuts were the two included with the bonus single, especially Time Heals, which deserved but did not get big radio play.
After more Utopia came Todd's final Bearsville effort, 1983's The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. The title speaks volumes of course, and it did feel like a kiss-off of sorts to his foundering label. Mr. 30-minutes-a-side now came in at 35 total for the whole thing. But if he was tossing them off, it sure didn't show, as almost by accident he created another of his best. The novelty number Bang the Drum All Day was tailor-made for The Muppets, and just as fun. Influenza and Hideaway were both catchy cuts, and his cover of The Faces' Tin Soldier matched the original. To this day, Rundgren remains an enigma, capable of producing fine new works, or cynically going out as the Ocasek-replacement in The New Cars. Never quite popular, and seemingly too smart to be tortured, you don't have to like it all, but there's probably something, anything here that you'll love.
Monday, February 22, 2016
His last disc, Weightless, earned him a Juno nomination for Roots and Traditional album of the year, but this one has Andersen edging closer to the soul side. Expanding his musical horizons, Andersen left the Maritimes for NYC, making the album there with the production of Commissioner Gordon, best known for working with Lauryn Hill, Santana, Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse. That meant working with some serious beat-makers, reggae players and R'n'B talent.
Sometimes surrounded by too much talent, those authors and ideas take over. But Andersen not only keeps this his own album, he puts his own stamp on a new groove, a roots-soul that is all about his big voice and powerful attitude. All The Way, written with Gordie Sampson, has seductive reggae groove, with Andersen controlling it all the way with his pipes threatening to burst at any moment. Last Surrender has Otis Redding horns, another showcase for the singer, plus a great Stax feel throughout.
Let's Get Back is a another standout, written pre-election as a plea of sorts to bring back some Canadian values from times past. On the softer side, there are a couple of co-writes with Andersen's current touring partner, Donovan Woods, where the two of them get the folkie side out. It's the most diverse album of Andersen's career to date, adventurous yet controlled, and an impressive advancement.
Sunday, February 21, 2016
The Beatles are probably the most covered band in history, so it's surprising that are very few full Beatles covers albums that bear repeated listening. You have the Booker T and the MG's homage to Abbey Road, McLemore Avenue (the home of Stax Studios, get it), and there was the excellent soundtrack to the movie I Am Sam, all Beatles takes featuring Aimee Mann, Paul Westerberg, Nick Cave and others. I'm probably forgetting some worthy ones, fill in your own, but they aren't that common all things considered.
Milos is a classical guitar player originally from Montenegro, one of these young turks who builds an audience outside the usual classical crowd by dipping into pop. Plus, he's a handsome devil, so he's working that. But you can't argue the talent, and some ideas of how to approach these classics of a different kind. You can't veer too far away from the famous melodies without bugging the fans, but you have to offer up something novel to make somebody want to put this one over the originals.
Most of the songs are instrumental, aside from a couple of guest vocals, Tori Amos has a haunting presence on She's Leaving Home, while Gregory Porter puts some guts into Let It Be, a good idea for this tired anthem. On the rest of the tracks, Milos' guitar is joined by a number of different instruments to offer up lots of variety. Cellist Steven Isserlis provides a winding counterpoint in Michelle, while bassist Chris Hill is featured on several tracks. A string ensemble is used joyously on Here Comes The Sun, and several other tracks. The best guest spot goes to Ravi Shankar's daughter, Anoushka, and the two of manage to make Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sound like a George Harrison-Indian music composition.
While some of the obvious pieces are used (Here, There and Everywhere, Something, Yesterday), the best results come from some surprising cuts. The early, pop number All My Loving reveals melodic charms, and While My Guitar Gently Weeps takes on a whole new meaning in this arrangement. The biggest surprise is hearing Come Together, about as rock as can be, in a whole new light. The album is a very pleasant surprise.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
I guess I always figured these tribute discs popped up after some boardroom meeting, where execs figure out what would sell and green-light possible projects. And probably some do. But in this case, it's a labour of love. Compiler/producer Jeffery Gaskill found out about Blind Willie Johnson after doing a similar tribute to the gospel music of Bob Dylan back in 2002. Since then, he's been on a quest.
Everything was lined up a decade ago, but the music industry's problems scotched the production. But working with fellow obsessed fans, Gaskill put together a Kickstarter campaign, got the artists back on board, and finally got the thing released, so big kudos to him. And the best news is, it's a tremendous set.
Johnson was not a blues guy like so many others of that time, the ones we now revere. He was a gospel player, in churches and on the street, He predates most of the famous ones, Robert Johnson and the rest by a few years, his recordings happening around 1930. But this wasn't the joyous stuff. Johnson wrote or played the deep, dark songs, not so much the fear of God, but more the great mysteries.
There's The Soul of a Man, the search for what that could be ("Nothing' but a burning light"). The song John the Revelator might be better known by Son House, but Johnson gave it even more gravitas, believing full well in those terrifying stories in Revelations. A song that almost every rock fan knows by Eric Clapton as Motherless Children is actually Johnson's, called Mother's Children.
Johnson was gravel-voiced and ground down by poverty and race, and knew the streets well, so Tom Waits is a perfect choice, doing two numbers here. He's part of an A-list roots lineup, that also features Lucinda Williams doing a couple, They are joined by Cowboy Junkies doing a great collage sound on Jesus Is Coming Soon, sampling Johnson's very own vocal. Blind Boys of Alabama do great justice to Mother's Children, and Sinead O'Connor is a big surprise on Trouble Will Soon Be Over. Maria McKee, Luther Dickinson (with fifes!), Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, everybody does excellent work here, except for a letdown from Rickie Lee Jones at the end. It's fantastic to know that a labour of love is still achievable.
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Opener Godawful Things is a strong blast of vintage soul, punched up to today's standards similar to the Daptone Records groups. But at the end, the song does an abrupt turn, becoming a choral harmony binge. That's something new. That's just one trick though. Close To Me is reminiscent of a Beatles blues, Abbey Road-era. The group even brings in disco later, without making it seem cheesy or retro.
While all this is attractive enough, the lead vocals of Rachael Price are the final magic touch. Smokey, soulful, she has the spunk of Amy Winehouse and the pop of Adele. This band feels very exciting.
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
For this album, Jones strips things down to rootsy blues, R'n'B and country, coming up with '50's sounds for cuts that range from that era to more modern stuff. Grabbing Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings' Elvis Presley Blues is a nice touch, as Jones can certainly feel the lyrics; The King looked up to Jones when they were pals in the Vegas years. He can easily handle a classic Hank Williams tune in Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do, and for the big blues, Willie Dixon's Bring It On Home seems almost a joy for Jones to sing.
The only problem with Jones now is that his famous pipes are still very much intact. That over-the-top, operatic punch that made showstoppers such as Delilah and It's Not Unusual shake the speakers is barely muted on these tunes. It's like having a jet engine in a Subaru, the guy is all-powerful. It works best on the rowdier stuff, whereas on the ballads that old Vegas Tom comes through in your memory. But hats off to him for such a fine, late-career resurgence AND still making them scream at the three-quarter century mark.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Cassidy's music sold tons a decade back, but it's been awhile since the last wave of interest. Time then for another generation to find out. This set was actually first put together in 2012 for the British market, where the Washington-based singer became hugely popular after her death from cancer in 1996.
If you're not familiar with her story, Cassidy was a largely-unknown singer, working clubs and recording tracks for small releases in Washington. After she died from melanoma, word spread of her talent, and some British DJ's started playing her tracks. Soon, an album was put together and took off, selling millions. Eventually nine albums were created from studio tracks, live recordings and demos. Her most famous track was her version of Fleetwood Mac's Songbird, showcasing her emotive, sweet vocals.
Cassidy tried a bit of everything during her demo and live sets, but the covers of modern standards were the favourites with fans, and that's what makes up the 20 cuts on this one. You'll find everything from Sting's Fields of Gold, Paul Simon's Kathy's Song, to a couple of Cyndi Lauper's numbers, True Colors and Time After Time. Several of the songs are covered far too often, including Imagine, Over The Rainbow and What A Wonderful World, but for vocal purity, you'll be hard-pressed to find better. This is the only set where you'll find this version of Claire Hamill's You Take My Breath Away, a demo recorded shortly before her death, with new backing by her old bandmates.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
After a couple of more serious outings, 2013's The Diving Board and the album with Leon Russell, The Union, in 2010, this set offers a more lighthearted set from Elton. With a big, gap-toothed smile of the cover, and the carefree title, the message is that Fun Elton is here. Yes, the ratio of uptempo cuts to ballads is higher, but he's not doing his most outrageous stuff anymore, no piano bench-kicking. Saturday Night's Alright For A Nice Meal Out With Friends.
While the title cut may suggest a party, it's really about remembering a crazy night that happened in the past. As much as Elton hates looking back and wants new hits and excitement, even his lyric partner Bernie Taupin knows nostalgia is their bread and butter now, "what a wonderful, crazy night it was." It's all mid-tempo rocking after that. Elton's sounding and playing great still, the piano is up front in the mix where it belongs, the production is suitably glossy, courtesy once again of T-Bone Burnett. Everything is in place for a good album.
But then there's Bernie. Loyal to a fault, Elton's still relying on the spotty, high school poetry of Taupin, trying hard to shoe-horn it into solid pop tunes. It's now been decades since he wrote a bona fide hit song, and its painful to hear him trying to evoke the old Tumbleweed Connection-Americana style (I've Got 2 Wings) or blunder through bad metaphors, as in Tambourine: "You're a spin-around Gypsy in the moonlight, Cymbals flashing in the firelight."
Go back and check out those beloved '70's Elton albums, and ya, there were tons of awful lyrics there too, but at least the ratio was much better, You could live with a clunker like "catching the horney-backed toad," whatever that was, when the big line was "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Here, there's almost nothing that's inspired. Too bad, with Elton firing on all cylinders, and up for a little fun too.
Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Some good ol' fun, in the good ol' ways: acoustic blues, western swing, honky-tonk, jug band, jazz and lots of gospel. Mr. Rick is very familiar with Mr. Wills (Bob), Mr. Williams (Hank), Mr. Ledbetter (Huddie), Ms. Carter (Maybelle), and Mr. Beam (Jim).
In case you missed the plan, it's spelled out plainly in the title. You have the twin pillars of good and evil, salvation and that old demon, alcohol. Using a collection of old favourites and traditional numbers that were the staple of '40's and '50's performers, you'll hear about the healing powers of heaven, or the sinful fun of the bottle. There's Champagne Don't Hurt Me, done here in a Rick Von Schmidt arrangement, making booze sound fabulous. Then there's the fire and brimstone fear of God found in Death Come In My Room, an old Southern spiritual that makes you hope He didn't seen all those stops at the liquor store. Detroit-bred, Toronto-based Rick nimbly finger-picks his way through it all, with fiddle, clarinet and a largely-acoustic cast grinning along.
As Mr. Rick points out, there's a great big philosophic discussion to have about these topics, their relationship and the era in which they were first popularized. That's not what he wants to do though, save it for Sunday school and musicology class. He just wants to enjoy it all, and let others choose sides in the battle between the Bible and the Bottle.
Sunday, February 7, 2016
Classic hard rock fans will get a kick out of the fact Leslie West is still sounding bigger and badder than ever. The Great Fatsby, the leader of Mountain, was one of the true heavyweight guitar players of the late '60's/early '70's, renowned for the hit Mississippi Queen, his massive sound and wicked vibrato. West counted the very best among his friends and admirers, including Hendrix, Pete Townshend (he played on the first Who's Next sessions) and Johnny Winter. Then there's the little supergroup he formed with Jack Bruce and Corky Laing, and apparently there are still some ears ringing from that band's gigs back in the day.
West has been on a recording role for the last few years, back in the saddle with the hard stuff, some blues and an occasional acoustic jam. There's no shortage of friends ready to pitch in, including Brian May of Queen, Peter Frampton, Mussel Shoals swamper David Hood on bass and former Domino Bobby Whitlock on organ. Even the late Bruce appears, as West found an old live tape of them playing a crushing version of Spoonful, in the Cream mode.
There's a couple of okay originals, but mostly West relies on covers, to which he can apply his famous signature sound, and this truly is a guitar player's album. It's not about fast, it's about tone, and finding new ways to present classics. There's everything from People Get Ready to Tracy Chapman's Give Me One Reason to a minor-key take on Your Are My Sunshine. As a tribute to his pal Howard Stern, there's the refreshing acoustic piece A Stern Warning.
West's no great vocalist, so the album falters a bit in that regard. Loud, he tries for the same space as AC/DC's Brian Johnson, but without the dynamics. Still, pretty good for a 70-year old. The best track doesn't even have him on it, singing or playing. Instead, he hands a solo cut over to his bass player, Rev Jones, who does a one-man, one-take version of Eleanor Rigby that's kind of mind-blowing. That's a pretty humble move.
Friday, February 5, 2016
Long-lasting Toronto tuneful punksters Broomfiller have let lose the second single, Tears Me Apart, from their 2015 return album, Third Stage Propellor Index. Around since the early 2000's, this is just the group's third album proper, and first in almost a decade. But energetic guitar and a feisty attitude never goes out of style, nor does a catchy song.
Tears Me Apart's a fine example of what the band is about on this album. The melody and vocal stands out even though the punk staples are still in place. And while the music may not be quite hard core, the emotions are. Like other songs on the set (first single How Long, So Long), the raw side of love is being studied, split-ups and those who probably should.
That's not to say Broomfiller can't bring it; Amputake crashes just fine, the guitar riff is nasty and discordant, and the whole thing is pleasantly unpleasant. It's tricky finding a balance between punk and musical, and Broomfiller does it well.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
One nice thing about the vinyl comeback is that many forgotten or ignored albums are back for another chance. Not every piece of an artist's catalogue was given a deluxe reissue, or any sort of notice on CD, but vinyl doesn't care about bonus tracks or liner notes. In this case, these relatively unheralded albums from Morrison can be judged on their original merits once again.
From the early '80's, these albums are vastly different from each other, at a time when Morrison seemed adrift and searching for a sound. The r'n'b of his most-loved '70's albums had been left behind, replaced by forays into Celtic, jazz, atmospheric new age synth sounds, and spiritual excursions. They can be fascinating, rambling and frustrating, often on the same side of one LP.
Common One comes from 1980, and is a hybrid of Celtic and jazz. It's also a spiritual collection, something that does link all three of the albums. In this case, the songs are epics, just six of them, with the sides coming in at 28 and 26 minutes aside. Haunts of Ancient Peace sets the mood, with lots of single horn parts from sax man Pee Wee Ellis and trumpeter Mark Isham, background singers doing the ooh's, and mythological lyrics. Van the spiritual man, then. His lyrics are influenced by classic poets, with Summertime in England, in its 15 minutes, a celebration of nature and the people who wrote about it, Blake, Elliot, Wordsworth. Joyce and Coleridge all referenced. Moving through different tempos and sections, Morrison riffs and raps, playing with the strings and horns, making this a fun and unique track.
The worst thing about Beautiful Vision is its bland and pointless cover, some half-moon image in front of a star field with a hand coming out. That alone probably cost the album about 200,000 copies in sales. Too bad, as it is his most accessible album from this period. It features solid and uplifting songs such as Vanlose Stairway, Cleaning Windows, Dweller on the Threshold and the title cut. The music is a little too atmospheric at this point, as he continued to edge towards the non-groove side of jazz. It would have been a much better album
with the songs approached in funkier arrangements.
From 1983 comes Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, where Morrison allows the synth and New Age sounds to dominate several songs. There's an annoying sheen to the album, and as producer, he's to blame. The bottom end is flattened out, there's too much echo on his vocals, and what good songs are here are neutered. Four bland instrumentals don't help either. Also, like Beautiful Vision, it features a ghastly cover, both designed by some guy named Rudi Legname. Oh, and Van gives special thanks to L. Ron Hubbard too. It taxes the patience of even the biggest Van fan I'd think.
But there are good songs here, which would blossom in other settings. The title cut, in two different versions has lyrical merit and sounded good live. Irish Heartbeat makes its debut, albeit barely Irish here but would soon great when used as the title cut of his much-loved album with The Chieftains in 1987. Rave On, John Dunne, his spoken-word with instrumental backing poem would be one of the highlight's of the Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast album the next year.
It was a tough period for Morrison, not without its rewards, but not one to dwell to long in. Vinyl is the best friend of these releases as it turns out, as 20 or 25 minutes is about all you need at a time.