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Released: March 2008
All songs written by Van Morrison
Vocals: Van Morrison
Fiddle: Tony Fitzgibbon
Organ: John Altair
Saxophone: Van Morrison
Piano: Van Morrison, Geraint Watkins
Guitar (electric & acoustic): Van Morrison, Ned Edwards, John Platania, Mick Green, Crawford Bell
Bass: Paul Moore, David Hayes
Drums: Neil Wilkinson
Banjo: Sarah Jory
Mandolin: Tony Fitzgibbon
Ukelele: Van Morrison
Steel guitar: Sarah Jory, Cindy Cashdollar
Accordion: Geraint Watkins
Other percussion: Liam Bradley
Backing Vocals: Katy Kissoon, Margo Buchanan, Steve Lange, Karen Hamill, Jerome Rimson, Crawford Bell, Ned Edwards
As has probably become rather apparent since I've been writing reviews on DooYoo, I am hardline Van Morrison fan. This man just speaks my language, not just with the words he writes, but with his tunes, musical productions and voice intonation. Love him or loathe him, this man has contributed an enormous amount to popular music since his first appearance in the UK charts way back in 1964, with the band "Them".
For those who are unfamiliar with Van's music, he largely blends all historic aspects of blues, R&B, soul and jazz, adding a distinctive Celtic flavour to all those genres. He has been through a phase of getting in touch with his Irish roots, and another phase of very spiritually inclined music, and has written a lot of what we now know as standards, such as "Have I Told You Lately", "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Moon Dance". As well as writing material that is often very commercially appealing, Van has also produced a large volume of work that is very deep and mystical - for many people, rather difficult to get into. Even as one of The Man's greatest fans, in the past I have found albums such as "TB Sheets" and "Veedon Fleece" rather hard-going, but with perseverance, I have grown to love the heavier stuff just as deeply, if not more so, than Van's lighter offerings.
In more recent years, it seems as if Van has been on a "back to basics" drive, and the title of his latest CD/DVD release suggests just that, as it is called "Keep It Simple". Though I still love everything to bits that Van comes up with, overall I tend to prefer his earlier stuff.....it's not that I think he's gone stale - he can still knock me for six - it's just maybe I don't feel quite so connected with his offerings from the past six or so years, but the CD/DVD I am about to review does contain at least a little of the old Van sparkle in parts.
So.....why am I waffling? Here follows, track by track, my review on Van Morrison's March 2008 album release, "Keep It Simple".
TRACK NO.1 - HOW CAN A POOR BOY?
This is a lazy, bluesy, almost "dirty" sounding piece of music with a gentle guitar and drums backing, harmonising well with a note-bending blues harmonica - Van takes the lead vocals with his very distinctive voice. This appears to be one in a long stream of songs on this and some of his more recent albums, whereby Van writes of his disillusionment with the music business. The words question about what is in the hearts of men, and a wondering of "how can a poor get a message to you...you don't believe anything that's true?" The track rolls along nice and gently, and is very typical of Van's jazz/R&B-influenced work. The sleeve notes mention a fiddle, but it must be very quiet as I don't hear it in the song.
TRACK NO.2 - SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
Van on this track takes us a little down the road of that "bite" which a lot of his music has....the "Van wistfulness" which I have spoken about before. The tempo is moderate, with piano being the most prominent instrument, interspersed with a nice, somewhat twiddly guitar solo in the middle of the song. This, like the last track, appears to be Van yet again speaking of his disdain towards the music business; he also speaks of propaganda and brainwashing. A nice tune with some good vocal backing that borders on almost being gospel in style, but I have to say not overall one of my favourite Van tracks.
TRACK NO.3 - THAT'S ENTRAINMENT
Van at his best here sings in that lovely, wistful, soulful voice which is all his own. This song has a very catchy tune, simple and straightforward. It's a love song that hooks into your attention from the first couple of bars, and as it rolls along in a very easy-going way, you find yourself becoming totally embroiled in the mood of the song. This track is true and pure Van, with his very distinctive old-style way of repeating a certain phrase continually in the middle of the song, and again at the end, varying the tune slightly....the song ends with Van's voice gradually lowering to a whisper, and then closing the song in harmony with a gentle guitar chord.
TRACK NO.4 - DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANY MORE
Another very dirty, bluesy track with Van's voice, sultry in tone, gliding around over a gentle, and rather sleazy soft organ, guitar and female backing vocals. This track I believe is a statement by Van about not doing so many live shows in small venues (such as nightclubs) as he used to, and the words convey a slight jaded feeling that maybe comes from ageing, and knowing you have already given the world your best. In the middle of this track is a rather intricate, laid-back, sliding guitar solo which sends shivers down your spine, ending on a single note by the female backing singers, gently fading away.
TRACK NO.5 - LOVER COME BACK
This is one of Van's "lost love" songs. He hasn't done all that many of them during his career, but those he has produced, have been of the type that once you familiarise yourself with them, they drive a knife into a wistful, inner place of loss. This one is no exception, although it isn't his best "lost love" song. In true Van style, he does little twiddles with his voice through the song where he will repeat one word a few times over, before moving onto the next part of the verse or chorus. The words of this song speak of a deep loss, rather than a temporary feeling of sadness which we get when losing someone who has been a ship that passes in the night. The tempo of this song is slow, and I'm not overly keen on the backing instrumentals (piano, guitar and organ) as the sound a little disjointed here and there, but that doesn't detract from Van's gently impassioned singing of a song of lost love.
TRACK NO.6 - KEEP IT SIMPLE
Yet another song where Van bemoans his disillusionment with the music business...I have to say, as much as I love and admire Van, I do get a little tired of this topic which has coloured his songs in recent years, almost as if it's an obsession for him. All the same though, this is a gentle, quite slow song with a lovely, wistful tune and a rather interesting fuzz-box style guitar backing....I hear a mandolin in there too. Loaded with the "Van wistfulness", this track musically digs deeper and deeper into your psyche as it goes on, pulling you into the very core of the psychology behind The Man's music, which always has been and continues to be something that is almost impossible to describe in words.
TRACK NO.7 - END OF THE LAND
This is a song, and a rather sad song, which speaks of a desire to get back to something....something indefinable, but referred to as "the end of the land". The song is very gentle with some lovely, softly played wistful guitar cords. I wouldn't say that vocally Van is at his best on this track - I could be very wrong about his intentions, but it sounds to be as if it's a filler-in, to pad out the CD. Of the whole wealth of Van's music that I have - and that's every album he's ever made - this is the very first time I've felt that not much effort was put into the writing of a song. Sorry Van - not keen on this one, but it still has to be said that for me, Van at his worst is light years better than a lot of other performers/singers/songwriters are at their best.
TRACK NO.8 - SONG OF HOME
This song begins with a bit of guitar plucking and a bit of slide guitar, then launches into a tune that is reminiscent of the backing track to a Dean Martin cowboy film from the 1950s. Despite that, it's got a medium tempo, and is very listenable to. Van here has blended a slight country music sound with a very definite Irish overtone, plus of course injecting a fair degree of his own special brand of wistfulness. The words simply speak of finally going home, after travelling the world....wanting to hear the birds, see the sky, smell the sea, see the harbour lights, hear the foghorns - all nostalgic "going home" type stuff. Far be it for me to argue with The Man, but I feel this track would sound better if he'd have concentrated more on the Irish flavour, and less on the C&W aspect.
TRACK NO.9 - NO THING
This song I believe is very influenced by Ray Charles, who I know Van has a great admiration for. The tune is medium to slow tempo, yet doesn't quite hook into my consciousness as well as most of Van's other stuff does. Similarly to Track No.7, I get a distinct feeling of the song being written just to fill up the CD, and similarly to Track No.8, there is a slight C&W feel to the song - but on this one, no Celtic feel. There is a rather mediocre organ solo in the middle, and the words largely speak of being too tired of the way things are, and wanting to move back to a more basic time.
TRACK NO.10 - SOUL
This track is rather slow, and at first seems as if it is going somewhere, then appears to lose its way, but finds it again when the verse is returned to. There is a very nice, soulful sax solo in the middle of the song played by Van himself, which is much closer to what I feel the essence of Van and his music is all about, then the song drifts back to being rather muddly and loses the impact that the sax solo had. All the same though, I do like the words of this song, which are Van describing what soul is - he's quite good at that, and has done it on a couple of his other albums. Van does strain somewhat to reach some of the high notes in this song, and I would prefer it if he didn't do that quite so raucously - he is capable of doing it much better. The high point of this track is the end, where it closes down with a superb, slightly fuzzed up guitar solo that, after the quietness of the rest of the song, really ROCKS!
TRACK NO.11 - BEHIND THE RITUAL
Now! This is more like it! This song opens with soft strumming on guitar and mandolin, then Van's voice (at its best!) joins in and treats my mind, body, soul, spirit with a superb, shamelessly wistful dose of the very core and essence of what Van Morrison has always been about, at his best. This track is pure class....it rolls along, biting hard as it goes with Van's vocals blending together with the drum, guitar, mandolin, organ and piano backing, all gelling wonderfully to make this very soulful track. This song is oozing with that special, unique "Van-ness" that is all his own. The subject matter of this song is largely nostalgic, looking back to past (and presumably) better times...e.g., behind the ritual of today's life. In the middle of this track, Van gives a chorus of lots of "blah blah blah blahs" which if you read them on the CD sleeve where the words of the songs are printed, it looks pretty stupid....but, amazingly enough, it sounds perfectly OK when you hear it. The song winds down to a close, with Van's voice becoming more and more gentle, ending on a final drum and guitar chord. Definitely this is the best track on the whole album, and is far more in tune with the core of what Van Morrison is at heart, than tracks 1-10 combined.
In summary, I would say that by no means is this anywhere near Van's best album...nor would I put it into my top 20 of all his albums. What it does have though is quality, even if a couple of the tracks aren't quite up to what I feel is Van's scratch. The last track especially proves that Van still does have what it takes to delight his fans with his own special style, but I suppose we do have to remember that he has been constantly active in the singing/songwriting business for over 45 years, and I can forgive him if there's a possibility he might be drying up a little. Even if Van tomorrow were to produce an album that is worse than The Spice Girls, worse than Des O'Connor, worse than "The Birdies' Song", I'd happily forgive him because he since 1964 has been my musical backbone, and has given me so very much joy and inspiration.
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 How Can A Poor Boy?
2 School Of Hard Knocks
3 That's Entrainment
4 Don't Go To Nightclubs Anymore
5 Lover Come Back
6 Keep It Simple
7 End Of The Land
8 Song Of Home
9 No Thing
11 Behind The Ritual