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SINGERS & MUSICIANS: Van Morrison, Acker Bilk, Keith Donald, Foggy Lyttle, David Hayes, Liam Bradley, Matt Holland, Martin Winning, Richard Dunn, Ned Edwards, Bobby Irwin, Mick Green, Alan 'Sticky' Wicket, Gavin Povey, Lee Goodall, Pete Hurley, Johnny Scott, Nicky Scott
INSTRUMENTS USED: Electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, Hammond organ, drums, washboard, alto tax, tenor sax, baritone sax, flugelhorn, bass clarinet, bass, trumpet, congas, flute, mandolin, orchestrated violin backing
Released in 2003, sadly this is one of the very few Van Morrison albums which never made the top 40 in the UK album charts.
As I have described in my reviews on a few other Van albums, he has been going through quite a long phase of expressing his dissatisfaction with the darker side of the music business, and "What's Wrong With This Picture" is no exception.
If Van carries on producing music until he is 100 (if he lives that long), I often wonder whether he will move into another phase, and out of the one he has been in since the mid-1990s, or whether what is here is here to stay. I'm not complaining at all, as I love 99.9% of Van's total output, and to me wherever he is at any time is just where he is, and I can get off on that.
Even though in Van's continuing vein of music that is slightly jazzy, slightly melancholy, slightly nostalgic, speckled with rants on the music business doesn't largely seem to capture people's imaginations like his earlier offerings, this particular album does contain a couple of tracks that hold the special and unique magic which Van is best known and appreciated for.
Here's my track by track synopsis, together with a little hint for those who hate this style, to just skip to the end.
1) WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE (words & music by Van Morrison)
This song opens with violin and gentle piano, and in comes a very soft sax sound. The mood conveyed by this opening is slightly bluesy, and very reminiscent of Ray Charles' style. Van's voice comes in, singing rather a sad tune where he urges people to take him how he is and not to expect him to be what he used to be....not to pay any heed to gossip or to believe what we read in the media; not to hang onto what he has left behind. Somebody must have cracked a joke in the recording studio, as he laughs rather prominently - yes, Van does laugh sometimes lol! The saving grace on this track for me is the lovely guitar sound which is quite prominent and provides a sad and soulful middle-eight, plus the occasional little deviation from the main tune into something rather soul-ish - otherwise, I have to say that I'm not overly keen on it compared to Van's other work.
2) WHININ' BOY MOAN (words & music by Van Morrison)
This track is a deliciously nice piece of jazz which rolls along at a steady pace with hammond organ, sax, and a nice steady drumbeat. Van joins in, singing in that wonderful voice he has which was made for jazz. In this song he's urging people to stop moaning about what he does (referring to himself as "the whinin' boy"), and if they feel they can do it better, then get up and do so. There is a lovely, dirty sax break in the middle-eight of this song, with trumpet joining in - very jazzy, and it really swings! Music for a hot summer's day!
3) EVENING IN JUNE (words & music by Van Morrison)
This is quite a poetic love song, which speaks of going for a walk with a loved one on a warm, flower-scented evening in June. It begins with trumpet, Hammond organ, congas and soft rolling guitar. Van's voice joins in, and the track, though none of the words are sad or miserable, has a slightly melancholic feel...an unusual tune - it has a slightly South American feel to it. I can't say that, by Van's standards, this song is anything particularly special - it's best points are the words, and a very haunting flugelhorn solo in the middle, harmonising with bass clarinet.
4) TOO MANY MYTHS (words & music by Van Morrison)
This track begins with a dirty, bluesy guitar and piano, then Van's voice joins in. This is a slow, sleazy song with some delicious guitar sounds in the background. The song is written as if Van is talking to someone, telling them that the myths (presumably what the media write about him) are coming between them - he's saying he's trying just to stay in the game and maintain himself and his standards. The middle-eight of this song is an interesting, lazy, bluesy combination of slightly fuzzed guitar and piano, with drums and bass backing. Though I like this track a lot, it does go on a bit, and I feel it would have more impact if it were say, 30 seconds or a minute shorter. It does end with a lovely guitar twiddle though.
5) SOMERSET (words by Van Morrison, music by Acker Bilk & David Collet)
Mmmm this song starts with a bluesy, slow boogie-ish roll on the piano, backed by guitar with bended notes. Van's voice and a deep sax joins in, with a nice, mellow romantic song about an evening spent in Somerset with somebody. The descriptions (sung by Van and backed by Acker Bilk on clarinet) of this experience are very poetic, romantic and skilfully written. The middle-eight of the song is a nice solo by Acker Bilk, backed by bluesy guitar and piano. I have to say that though the essence of this song is very good, I find the meandering of the tune a little strange; certain bits of it don't seem to follow on properly from the previous bits.
6) MEANING OF LONELINESS (words & music by Van Morrison)
A slow drumbeat backed by Hammond organ starts this song, joined by gentle guitar. Van's voice then glides in, and sings a soft jazz style song which is full of quite biting, yet very poetic images describing loneliness....lonely in your own back yard, lonely on the road, lonely in a crowd. He speaks of an existential dread inside of his head, and references are made to the works of Dante, Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche and Hesse (I'm not sure if Rudolf or Herman). There is a lovely melancholy sax middle-eight which sad is the wrong word for....I think desolate is a more accurate description. Van then goes on to sing about solitude, how it is a good thing for him; and that nobody knows what's in his or anyone's head, or the meaning of loneliness. In a way, this song is about being trapped, and a slight reference is made to the pressures of the music business towards the end of the song. I think what Van is really trying to say is that regardless of his fame, artistic ability and fortune, deep down he's still lonely and unhappy. He, backed by sax and Hammond organ - which dive into a little of the "Van wistful bite", finishes the song with a little gentle scat singing.
7) STOP DRINKING (words & music by Lightnin' Hopkins)
This song begins with a lively rock'n'roll riff - Van sings rock'n'roll better than any other type of music, and this song is no exception. It's an uptempo track, with the riff following through on guitar and piano. There is a brilliant, 50s style rock'n'roll guitar break in the middle, followed by some superb, dirty rock'n'roll sax. Van does this Lightnin' Hopkins song total justice, and it's one of the best tracks on the album. The words are very much what the title suggests....someone being warned about drinking too much, and getting fed up with people constantly telling him to stop. I have this track somewhere amongst my vast music collection by Lightnin' Hopkins himself, and he blasts out some terrific piano boogie on it. This is definitely MY type of music, above all others. Good, pure boogie/rock'n'roll which just makes you want to jive, man!
8) GOLDFISH BOWL (words & music by Van Morrison)
We start this track with gentle, slightly bluesy tenor and alto sax (Van plays the alto sax himself). This song is very sleazy, lazy and laid-back. Van then begins to sing, backed by the tenor sax, drums and Hammond organ. This is a definite attack on the music business - he pleads with people to leave him alone and give him back his privacy. He states that he's just doing a job, on and off the road, and wants the shallow media to stop publishing lies about him and his life....he calls the newspaper barons the scum of the lowest grade. The middle-eight of the song is played on Hammond organ, very what I call "idle" bluesy music.....sleazy and lazy. Towards the end of the song, we have a very, deliciously dirty sax improvisation which sends chills down my spine.
9) ONCE IN A BLUE MOON (words & music by Van Morrison)
This song sounds of a genre that I can't think of a name for, but is familiar all the same....perhaps a bit calypso-ish? It has a good tune with rather a prominent piano backing, though all instruments are present. Van sings about one of those once in a blue moon relationships that rarely comes along, where you totally connect with the other person. There are some quite poetic lines in the song about how this kind of relationship feels, aligning it to starry nights, walks in the sunshine etc. Sadly, halfway through the track, the instrumentals seem to lose their way a bit. I think personally there is too much going on all at once here, and I'd like to hear it slowed right down, with maybe just Van's voice and a gentle sax, guitar and piano backing. There is a rather good alto sax solo in the middle though.
10) SAINT JAMES INFIRMARY (traditional, arranged by Van Morrison)
This maudlin traditional song begins with soft drumming, soft Hammond organ, soft trumpet - then a bitter-sweet little roll on alto sax. The tune is slow, plodding, and in this instance has been given a decidedly bluesy feel. It's not a song that I'm fond of anyway, but the alto sax together with Van's voice is its saving grace. About halfway through, after a little backing vocal, Van begins to sing this depressing old, rather well-known blues song, about a man going to Saint James Infirmary to see his woman who's obviously on her death bed. The middle-eight of the song is almost dirge-like, conjuring up images of despair, depression and death. Then the whole caboodle of instruments join in, and take what is an otherwise seriously jarring song into something rather superb, as it rolls down to a close.
11) LITTLE VILLAGE (words & music by Van Morrison)
A softly strummed guitar, accompanied by soft piano opens this song, followed by Van's voice singing about England on long cool summer nights, the silence, a little village, escaping away from the stresses of the world to a peaceful place. Van then goes on to sing (in his more spiritual style) about searching for the truth. This song is much more like Van's old style, and has oodles of his "wistful bite". It gradually builds up and up, in true early Van period style - lovely soulful tune, a little twiddle on a mandolin here and there, building, accumulating, into something rather wonderful. This is Van at his best, and very reminiscent of some of the stuff he used to delight our souls with years ago. There is a superb alto sax solo at the end of this song, which is divinely soulful, and makes me sit up straight in my seat.
12) FAME (words & music by Van Morrison)
This song begins with guitar and piano, then Van's voice comes in making what began as something with a slightly country feel, into a sleazy, slow R&B style song. This is one of Van's offerings whereby he's got a bit of a downer on the music business, and he explains how he got caught up in fame, how it takes away people's humanity, corrupts them, and how he is feeling trapped by it and how it has messed up his sanity. I love Van to bits, but I do get a bit tired of these rants against the music business. It was OK for a few albums, but the complaining is now wearing a bit thin. There is a lovely bluesy, dirty, quite high-pitched guitar solo in the middle of this song and the whole thing sounds delicious - shame about the subject matter of the song really.
13) GET ON WITH THE SHOW (words & music by Van Morrison)
Yet another gripe with the music business! This song begins with all brass instruments playing together, backed by slightly funky-ish, yet soft guitar and drums. The Hammond organ then joins in with Van's voice, as he sings of the hassle of being famous, how he can't take any more of the hangers on. He feels that nobody understands him, everybody is so fickle, and that the whole ballgame is an illusion. There are analogies made to certain biblical characters in the song, using their stories (such as Samson & Delilah amongst others) to explain betrayal. All he wants to do is get on with his work as a singer/songwriter, and be left alone to do just that. I'm not wild about the tune of this song, but as I've said elsewhere....Van at his very worst, is zillions better than a lot of other people are at their very best. I'm not mad on this track, and for me it's the worst on the whole album.
It really to me doesn't seem five years ago that this album was released, and I have to say that though overall it is very good, it's not one of Van's that I have played very much.
Having said all I've said, this isn't Van's worst album....although it isn't far up from the bottom. I shall one day review what for me is his very worst - and that album will be bottom of my Van favourites list, but perhaps halfway up my all-time favourite albums across the spectrum of time and artists/performers.
Unless you are a hardline Van fan, you may find this album a little boring, but if you are inside of the man and his soul/spirit/psychology (or whatever you want to call it), then you will be able to make a connection with it.
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 What's Wrong With This Picture
2 Whinin' Boy Moan
3 Evening In June
4 Too Many Myths
6 Meaning Of Loneliness
7 Stop Drinking
8 Goldfish Bowl
9 Once In A Blue Moon
10 Saint James Infirmary
11 Little Village
13 Get On With The Show