For about the past ten
years, when not doing special project albums with other
artists, Van Morrison seemed to be making the same
album again and again. It seemed that one could almost
write the generic Van Morrison song the way one could
write the generic country song. Van has three types of
songs: The "I was in the garden wet with rain listening
to the radio in the alley" song. The "I was lost in the
rapture of Yeats, Blake or the poet of your choice while
wandering in the garden wet with rain while my Telefunken
blasted into the alley" song. And the complaining song,
which is basically: "I was screwed by the businessmen,
the press, and the morons on the Internet who think they
know about me but won't leave me alone because they're
all idiots wearing fashionable clothes and following the
current trends which has nothing to do with the glorious
rapture while listening to Sidney Bechet and reading Wordsworth
while searching for the eternal eternal vision of John
Lee Hooker jamming with Ray Charles in the Celtic mist
in the alley wet with rain" song.
Down the Road (Universal)
may touch on familiar Morrison themes, but it is definitely
a new album and may be his best work since 1991s
Hymns to the Silence. He sounds not only revitalized
but alive, tough, and totally in the groove. Musically
hes leaning on the blues, but he wanders frequently
into jazz, country, and swing as well as Celtic-flavored
tunes. This is of course typical Morrison territory, but
this album is refreshing in the same way that Moondance
was more than three decades ago.
Only Morrison could
use what is essentially a Jimmie Rodgers framework to
write a song about missing Ireland, "What Makes the Irish
Heart Beat," complete with an Irish, not a country fiddle.
That he follows it by moving effortlessly into the totally
swinging "All Work and No Play" while blowing a mean alto
sax solo somehow makes perfect sense.
Among the standouts on
an album of standouts is "Whatever Happened to PJ Proby,"
another swing tune with a structure reminiscent of "Fever."
Morrison uses the specter of faded British rock stars
to make a strong comment on contemporary culture, singing:
Theres nothing to relate to anymore/Unless you
wanna be mediocre. In the last verse he turns the
question on himself: Whatever happened to all those
dreams a while ago/Whatever happened way across the sea/Whatever
happened to the way its supposed to happen/And whatever
happened to me?
At the beginning of the
80s, Morrison began to create a sound that was distinctly
his own. Using whatever he needed, whether a string section
or horns, it wasnt rock, blues, or soul exactly,
but something that used all those elements to achieve
a higher musical plane. It had nothing to do with anything
else that was happening at the time; in fact it deliberately
ignored contemporary trends. That sound is represented
here by "The Beauty of the Days Gone By," which has the
most heartfelt vocal on the album.
The most unexpected song,
and one that shows that Morrisons writing skills
are totally intact, is "Man Has to Struggle," where he
takes on the entire human condition with startling clarity
and humor. While much of Morrisons work for the
past two decades has had a strong spiritual context, several
lines suggest he may have abandoned that line of thought:
Man was told that he was born in original sin/By people
long ago that were conning him/Man is so out of touch
he cant trust himself/But mans still got to
win by cunning and stealth.
The album concludes with
"Fast Train," one of the most beautiful songs Morrison
has written. With Morrison on acoustic guitar and harp,
backed by bass, drums, organ, and a perfect slide guitar
by Johnny Scott, its sad and soulful and everything
a Morrison song should be.
Wherever that mysterious
place is that creates the songs that stay with you and
become part of your life, Van Morrison tapped into it
this time. His convincing performance shows that he knows
Steve Earle has
never used his music to rant about either the great poets
or alleys wet with rain, though he has ways of letting
you know he knows about them. Sidetracks (Artemis)
is an album in the old sense of the word, a collection
of songs instead of a grand statement, and in this case
songs that for one reason or another didnt make
it onto other albums. In the notes, Earle refers to them
as stray tracks since some were written or, in the case
of the cover tunes, recorded for films and other projects.
Either way this group of songs, which ranges from originals
to a fairly crazy selection of covers, works as an album.
Earle is clearly having
fun here, whether dueting with Sheryl Crow on the Chambers
Brothers "Time Has Come Today" or rocking hard on
Kurt Cobains "Breed."
The originals include "Some
Dreams," written for the movie The Rookie, which
is classic Earle in the rock country vein, and a new version
of "Ellis Unit One" from Dead Man Walking that
features the Fairfield Four on backup vocals and is every
bit as intense as the original version.
After paying tribute to
Lowell Georges "Willin" and the Flying Burrito
Brothers "My Uncle," Earle winds things up with
a slow, building version of Dylans "My Back Pages."
Earles is a scratch vocalthe
released version featured Jackson Browne and Joan Osborneand
he sounds somewhat strained. He explains in the liner
notes that the key was out of his range, and jokes that
he sounds like his head may explode at any second. I couldnt
have put it any better, but while initially its
disconcerting, its ultimately effective.