Van Morrison “Duets: Reworking The Catalogue”


vanmorrisonduetsThe album of duets usually represents the last kick at the can for an aging crooner. Typically our old hero’s voice is a shadow of its former self, so he gets his duet partner to harmonize as well as carry a share of the lead vocals, hoping that his own sad deficiencies won’t be so obvious.

And they usually choose young pop stars to help them sing their old favorites, in a deluded quest to score a hit, or at the very least, introduce their music to younger audiences.

By and large the formula works, successfully bringing some late-life attention to guys like Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Paul Anka. But with this album, Van Morrison has broken all the duet rules, and the results are decidedly mixed.

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For one thing, Van Morrison doesn’t need any help singing. At a time when Rock singers from the sixties are measured by how many notes they can’t hit anymore, Van the Man hasn’t lost a whole lot. What an amazing instrument this man’s voice is, still sounding just about as distinctive and as versatile as it has always been.

Secondly, Morrison handpicked his duet partners, and Michael Buble and Joss Stone are the only ones under the age of 40. Actually most of them are flirting with retirement age, to which I say bravo. There’s always something a little creepy about those May-September duets, like the recent Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga show of horrors.

Thirdly, the Vanster took the unusual step of choosing little-known album tracks from his catalogue to sing with his partners. This was a double-edged sword for the project. On the one hand, most of us can’t negatively compare the duet versions to their originals, because we don’t remember them.

On the other hand, not many of these songs can stand up to his greatest writing, so he kind of handcuffed the project right from the start. I would have loved to hear Mavis Staples have a go at something like “Into The Mystic”, instead of another song I’ve never heard before.

Too many of the tracks suffer from extra-slick production. My favorites are the ones that fit into the loose jazz combo template where his best sounds were always made: “The Eternal Kansas City” with Gregory Porter, “These Are The Days” with Natalie Cole, and “Fire In The Belly” with Steve Winwood. Another standout is an All-Irish lament “Streets Of Arklow” with Mick Hucknall.

And bonus points for a nice bit of Meta – singing a song called “Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby” in duet with Proby himself, the obscure sixties pop star. A lyric from the song may sum up my feelings about the album as a whole:

There’s nothing to relate to anymore
Unless you want to be mediocre
Ain’t nothing new under the sun
And the moon and the stars now chum

Whatever happened to all those dreams a while ago
Whatever happened way across the sea
Whatever happened to the way it’s supposed to happen
And whatever happened to me?

Release Date: March 23, 2015

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