Music Reviews: Van Morrison’s ‘Latest Record Project,’ Plus Our Band and Laura Nyro
Van Morrison’s new album—his 42nd studio LP and his eighth record in the last five years—includes a song called “Where Have All the Rebels Gone?” A more pertinent question might be, “Where has Van Morrison gone?” The answer, it seems, is to some strange and at times barely recognizable place. The great Irish singer’s latest release certainly doesn’t sound much like the work of the man who produced such joyful early gems as 1967’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and 1971’s “Tupelo Honey,” as well as masterful and poetic LPs like 1968’s Astral Weeks, 1970’s Moondance, 1979’s Into the Music, and 2005’s Magic Time, to name a few.
You may begin to have doubts about this record even before you play it. It bears what sounds like a hastily penned working title, Latest Record Project, Volume 1, as well as cover art that looks like something created on a computer in five minutes.
Many of the lyrics on the two-hour album—which fills two CDs and contains 28 tracks—seem to have been dashed off almost as quickly. In fact, Morrison appears to confirm that in a number called “Only a Song,” in which he suggests that his lyrics are throwaways and not to be taken seriously: “It’s only a poem, it could change in the long run…It’s what I said then just to make it rhyme…something’s on my mind at the time.” What’s on his mind now, at any rate, are mostly gripes.
Morrison has always had his cranky side: he famously recorded more than two dozen unreleased and intentionally bad songs in 1967 to fulfill a record contract he didn’t like and, on 1986’s excellent No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, he slipped in a rant about how “copycats” were ripping off his material. But he has taken crankiness—and weirdness—to new heights lately.
Last fall, he released songs attacking the U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown, calling government leaders “fascist bullies” who were “making up crooked facts” and “cramping my style.” Now, on Latest Record Project, he takes aim at such targets as the media (“they control everything you do”), the judiciary (“four judges screwed me over”), Facebook (“you’re a failure [if you’re on it],” and psychoanalysts (“keep coming back every week for the rest of your life / will it make any difference at all?”).
And amid all this bitching, he inserts a song called “Stop Bitching, Do Something.” Go figure.
The relatively good news is that Morrison’s voice is as expressive as ever; the sax and organ work and backup vocalists add a lot; and this jazzy, well-arranged R&B, some of which reflects the singer’s penchant for John Lee Hooker, is pretty consistently listenable and often enjoyable. You wouldn’t call these performances inventive or revelatory, but as long as you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, you could do worse for a party soundtrack.
Still, let’s hope that there’s no Latest Record Project, Volume 2. Morrison remains one of popular music’s most talented artists, but he’d make better albums if he could put his grievances aside and take his work as seriously as he ostensibly once did. This release shows that he can sound good even when he’s barely trying but also that it’s time for him to turn the Van around and head down a different road.
Our Band, Bright as You. Sasha Papernik and Justin Poindexter come from disparate backgrounds (she’s a first-generation Russian American, he’s from North Carolina) but they had enough personal chemistry to marry—and enough musical chemistry to craft this lovable folk/pop debut album.
The duo, who now call New York City home, serve up one lilting number after another on Bright as You, which features Papernik on piano and accordion, Poindexter on guitars, lap steel, Mellotron, organ, and bass, and first-rate vocals by both of them. Some of the tracks sound reminiscent of the Kennedys, another married couple who also favor a folk/pop blend; other songs seem as if they would have fit right in on AM radio during its late-60s glory days.
Highlights include Poindexter’s sweet “More Than Friends” and the exquisite “Cool and Easy,” both of which feature harmony vocals good enough to recall the Everly Brothers; Papernik’s “Hazel,” a song about the couple’s daughter that finds veteran composer, conductor, and musician David Amram guesting on French horn; and the sole non-original, a medley that combines the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” with Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.”
The only thing here that doesn’t exude talent and originality is the outfit’s name. But hey, Robbie Robertson and friends didn’t do too badly with a very similar no-frills moniker, so maybe “Our Band” will serve this pair just fine.
Laura Nyro, Trees of the Ages: Laura Nyro Live in Japan. The late Laura Nyro was a fine songwriter whose creations produced hits for artists like the 5th Dimension, Barbra Streisand, and Blood, Sweat & Tears, but she was also a first-rate singer, pianist, and interpreter of others’ material. For evidence of both her compositional and performing abilities, check out this album, which was originally released only in Japan in 2003.
Featuring well-restored sound and new liner notes, the live set culls 16 of its tracks from a February 1994 concert in that country and the other five from a Tokyo radio set that same month. It embraces some of Nyro’s best-known compositions, including “Wedding Bell Blues,” “And When I Die,” and “Save the Country,” plus terrific covers of such 1960s hits as the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love,” Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby,” and Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By.” Even the widely recorded “Let It Be Me” sounds fresh in Nyro’s interpretation.
If you’re a fan, you probably already own Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro, if not her 10 studio albums. Complete the picture with this excellent live set.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.