Van Morrison/Born To Sing: No Plan B (Blue Note) – At the age of 67, Belfast’s golden boy is certainly among the hardest working artists in show business. With a net worth estimated at over 80 million, he’s also one of the richest men in music today – with that kind of money, who really needs a “Plan B”? The title track of Van Morrison‘s 35th studio release is meant to be more earnest than the album’s tongue-in-cheek inference, what with Morrison’s soulful execution, backed by a crack team of studio musicians. But the question that keeps popping up in my mind while pouring through Born To Sing‘s ten-song buffet is, “Why?”
With a catalogue as large and variegated as Morrison’s, the tendency to retread familiar territory is not just likely, but inevitable. To his credit, Morrison gets a little sociopolitical on this album, but for me, he misses the mark almost as often as he hits it. On “End Of The Rainbow”, Morrison’s trenchant message (“No pot of gold at the end of the rainbow/No social ladder to climb anymore/No panhandler can stake a claim here/Goldmine is not what it’s worth, know the score”) does not benefit from its laid back, mid-tempo arrangement: it’s too poppy to be a dirge, which might imply an ironic contrast.
“Going Down To Monte Carlo” references the French philosopher Sartre’s statement that “Hell is other people” but frankly Van, it seems disingenuous to run away to a province which is emblematic of affluence and extravagance, then bitch about the phoniness and pettiness that surrounds you. And perhaps therein lies the rub. It’s hard to pick up the gauntlet of social commentary when you’ve created a world for yourself that while spanning the globe, is in many ways, pretty insular. There’s a wealth of good intention permeating Born To Sing, but we all know what roads are paved with good intentions.
And what’s with all the bellyaching over what you deem to be “phony, pseudo-jazz” anyway? On both “Monte Carlo” and “Close Enough For Jazz” (a tune you revisited from your own ’93 release Too Long In Exile which, by the way sounds much jazzier on the original) , you appear to mock the current state of popular jazz, but coming from the architect of Pazzjop, it’s the pot calling the kettle black, isn’t it? In fact, more than a few of your detractors would argue that many of the most popular songs in the Morrison canon are guilty of the same crime (“Did Ye Get Healed?” anyone?) – so that’s a debate I’d avoid instigating.
My beef isn’t with the overall feel of Born To Sing – praise should go to the three-piece horn section, featuring brothers Chris White (clarinet, sax), Alistair White (trombone) and Morrison himself on alto sax, bassist Paul Moore, drummer Jeff Lardner and guitarist Dave Keary. One could not hope for a better crew of musicians, and their collective chops certainly elevate a lot of the material, but the boilerplate songwriting makes the end result sound too often like the poor man’s Steely Dan – not nearly acerbic or funky enough to be the genuine article.
If only more songs were as moving as “If In Money We Trust”, Born To Sing‘s masterstroke. Accentuated by Alistair’s sly trombone, Morrison’s thought-provoking lyricism (which exposes the spiritual deficit inherent in materialism) and Low Spark-inspired piano, it’s one of the album’s true highlights – the second being the countrified-blues of “Pagan Heart” which follows. It’s as if the seven tracks which preceded them were the band warming up in the bullpen, before literally coming out swinging. The four-year pause between releases is unheard of for Morrison, who has built a reputation for releasing a new album a year, but perhaps a longer hiatus is what’s called for – after all genius should never be rushed, and with Morrison’s relentless touring and work ethic, he is in no danger of falling off the radar of adult contemporary rock anytime soon. Rating: 3 Stars
Giant Giant Sand/Tucson: A Country Rock Opera (Fire Records) – In the lexicon of indie-rock royalty, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb is right up there with Patrick Coyne (Flaming Lips), Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Sam Beam (Iron and Wine). Besides recording since the 80’s, Giant Sand is also renown for spawning the band Calexico (whose members were originally part of Giant Sand’s rhythm section) and for the distinctive, Southern drawl of its lead singer – a lo-fi folk everyman whose influences range from Tom Waits to Merle Haggard to Neil Young. The recent incarnation of the band (featuring roughly a dozen folks) includes several Danish musicians assisting Gelb, and has been crowned Giant Giant Sand. Equally ambitious is the concept behind Tucson, which Gelb describes as a “country rock opera.”
Opening with the sleepy “Wind Blown Waltz”, Gelb sets an unhurried pace for this song-cycle: “Dare to have a dance or two/For all your faults, can’t hold a candle to the wonder of you…” Close harmonies and a lilting mandolin and whining pedal steel complement the whiskey baritone of Gelb, who seems as if he’d be right at home narrating a Larry McMurtry novel. “Forever and a Day” picks up the pace, with a Mariachi-infused, Morriconesque arrangement (with guitar lines from the “Witchita Lineman” playbook,) then takes a hard left into a wicked shuffle, where Gelb declares: “Adios, Losers! We’re stuck here anyway/You’ve always been the accuser/When you lose her, she’ll be here to stay/We told you so!”
The conceptual narrative for this album concerns a drifter who turns all monastic, leaving his girl and possessions behind, and somehow winds up connecting with the Occupy movement in Tucson, Arizona. “Detained” has Gelb going from a spoken word intro to a grizzled croon worthy of Willie himself: “One little detail/Detained at the border/This deal has been derailed by executive order…” Throughout Tucson, both the melodies and musicianship pay generous homage to Nelson, Cash, Jennings, Haggard and even classic Dire Straits. This is exactly the kind of music you’d likely hear any Friday night in the honky-tonks of the great Southwest – the difference being Gelb’s unique gift for modern-day storytelling, in the vein of his contemporaries like Beam or Coyne.
Indeed, the music is performed with such effortless precision and panache, it’s easy to lose sight of Gelb’s lyricism – this is not a pejorative, it’s just to say that great songs first catch your ear, before their message seeps into your brain. And with repeated listenings, Gelb’s lyrical gift becomes quietly, effectively apparent on “Undiscovered Country”, “Plane of Existence” and “Hard Morning In A Soft Blur” – which it turns out was the “hard left” interpolated into “Forever And A Day”, though his approach here is more brooding in nature. Then there’s the startlingly sassy “Ready Or Not”, featuring vocalist Lonna Kelley channelling Peggy Lee‘s “Fever”, and doing a heck of a job with it: “When the big idea comes calling collect/Will you hardly absolve or readily neglect?/Will you be ready?”
The occasional vocal contributions of others make for pleasant detours, and prevents Gelb’s delivery from becoming too monotonous, especially given the 19-track length of Tucson. And while his ambition of this disc being a bonafide country-rock opera might be slightly overreaching, there’s no denying the spirit, creativity and musical acumen at work. Even more amazing is the fact that Gelb is wisely economic on the arrangements, despite having such an arsenal at his disposal – nothing overwhelms, or feels excessively overdubbed. Tucson is as wide and sprawling as the landscape it traverses, and Gelb’s existential drifter is really a metaphor for the wanderlust that tugs at all our hearts from time to time – Gelb is just astute enough to give it a voice, and we are all the more enriched for it. Rating: 4 1/2 Stars