Van Morrison: Back on Top
by George Graham
(Pointblank 47148 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/18/99)
Pop music has a reputation for cultivating one-hit wonders, performers who attract public attention for a short time, then fade into obscurity or, in all too many cases, come to an untimely end. This brevity of fame is, in many cases, well-deserved, brought on by music that happens to arrive at just the right time for a fad, and depart just as quickly as the craze fades.
But there are also durable performers who keep at their musical trade, some going with the flow of styles in music, and others who keep true to their own style. Van Morrison is a stellar example of an artist from the rock era who has had a long and remarkably prolific career, and never let passing fads distract him from his own muse. And unlike some other durable artists who sometimes seem to run out of inspiration, Morrison if anything is becoming more prolific and seems to be in peak form more than thirty years after his first record. He has just released a CD which by one count is his 29th album, titled Back on Top.
The Irish singer, composer, guitarist and sometime saxophonist of course, got his start back in the late 1960s with a British band called Them, in which he was lead vocalist, and which produced several hits including Gloria and Here Comes the Night. But it was after the breakup of Them that Morrison's impact began to be felt. His first solo album from 1968, Astral Weeks, to this day remains a classic, and one of the most influential of its day. That was followed in 1970 by another seminal recording, Moondance, whose title song has become something close to an anthem for the Woodstock generation. Since then, Morrison has been releasing an average of about an album a year, with a gradual evolution from airy rock to R&B revival to again more atmospheric music with sometimes a spiritual or a philosophic lyrical direction.
In recent years, Morrison has been moving between jazz and blues influence, with albums made with musicians from both genres, including several recordings with John Lee Hooker, with Hooker and Morrison each appearing on each other's albums.
Morrison's new release Back on Top returns to the blues and soul influence that shaped his music in the first place. It's one of his best, most tasteful albums in recent years, and Van Morrison has had some very good albums in this period. Back on Top puts him in the company of some outstanding studio musicians plus some of the people he has worked with recently, in this recording made in England. He has also switched record companies to the British-based blues label Pointblank Records, which might explain some of the stylistic orientation of the CD.
The songs are nicely written but are not likely to provide any major surprises to Morrison fans. There's a couple of love songs, another piece celebrating the autumn, in the manner of Moondance, and there is some consideration of life with allusions to poets and philosophers. The style runs from straight electric blues to laid-back Memphis soul style, and there are even some tracks with surprisingly tasteful string section. Most of the album is in a laid-back, easy groove, with the backing musicians distinguishing themselves with great, understated playing. After Morrison's work with jazz musicians, he decided to use an acoustic bass throughout this album as played by Ian Jennings, and that imparts to the music hints of the sound of an earlier era, which adds a subtle but pleasing texture. Also prominent is keyboard man Geraint Watkins, who has worked with Morrison in the past, and whose almost plaintive Hammond organ is classy addition. Another notable is saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, with whom Morrison has worked since the 1980s.
The album gets under way with one of its bluesiest tracks, Goin' Down Geneva. It's amusing since we're all used to hearing references to locations in the American South in blues songs. The setting for this blues is very European, with some upscale cities like Geneva, Switzerland, and Salzburg, Austria providing the setting. Still, the track rocks. <<>>
More in keeping with the generally laid-back feel on the album is the following song Philosophers Stone, with lyrics in the style Van Morrison has been known for. It's nicely done with echoes of Memphis soul. <<>>
The title track Back on Top is an upbeat and rather optimistic song that could have to do with personal relationships as well as a kind of renewed optimism about life. <<>>
Van Morrison's best known composition remains Moondance, a classic autumn song. When the Leaves Come Falling Down on the new album also deals with a romantic autumnal setting. The string section makes an appearance on this ballad. <<>>
Also on more or less the same subject is High Summer a kind of love song longing for the end of summer and the beginning of fall. The musical context is a Dylanesque folk-rock direction, which doesn't quite work as well as other parts of the album. <<>>
Morrison casts a jaundiced eye on fame, presumably his own, on the song New Biography, which laments a biography created apparently from unreliable sources. It's interesting that he mentions the word "wavelength," the title of one of his albums that is also used by a fan magazine on the Internet, for which the artist apparently does not have much enthusiasm. <<>>
The most straight-out love song is Reminds Me of You. In this case it's a soul-style ballad of lost love. As a piece of writing it's one of the highlights of the CD. <<>>
Precious Time is an interesting blend, a happy, almost doo-wop style setting with some rather introspective lyrics about the fleeting nature of life. <<>>
The album ends with yet another musical reference to fall. Golden Autumn Day also features the string section framing a set of interesting lyrics that are anything but romantic. They describe frustration and anger at being mugged in an unnamed city in the British Isles. <<>>
Van Morrison's new album Back on Top is rather well-named. After a series of worthwhile studio and live albums in recent years, his new studio album is a standout. It features what the veteran performer does best, his blend of soul and blues from a British Isles standpoint. The songs are particularly good ones this time, as is the backing band with their very tasteful musicianship down to the string arrangements. Van himself plays some acoustic guitar, and gets out his harmonica for a couple of the bluesier songs.
From a sonic standpoint, the album is generally quite good. There's a decent dynamic range, and the vocals are well-recorded. But sometimes the guitars, especially Morrison's own acoustic guitar, can sound a bit thin and even shrill. Morrison produced the album himself, and did a great job of capturing a Memphis-across-the-Atlantic ambience that makes this album so appealing.
While pop stars come and go, Van Morrison proves that after more than 30 years on the music scene, and almost as many albums, he hasn't lost it. He has not only remained exceptionally prolific but is doing some of his best work.
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