Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Van Morrison Album (Part 4)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.


What’s Wrong with This Picture (2003, Blue Note)

B +

It’s not quite Back on Top, but Morrison is nearly back to form here, and he’s even rocking out with more abandon than he has in decades – just check out the heated up-tempo cuts “Whinin’ Boy Moan” and the even more playful “Stop Drinkin” as perfect proof of this. The rhumba-like rhythms of “Once in a Blue Moon,” the Sam Cooke-like retro-soul vibe of “Get on with the Show,” the clever lyrical conceits of “The Meaning of Loneliness” and the lovely orchestral haze of the wistful title cut are all highlights as well, and rarely has Morrison ever sounded quite as downright sleek as he does on the intoxicating R&B of “Evening in June.” There is still the occasional dull moment – “Too Many Myths” and “Somerset” in particular temporarily derail the disc’s momentum – but, overall, this disc sports a superior – and more fun – set of songs than its immediate predecessor Down the Road.  


Magic Time (2005, Polydor)

A –

Arguably his finest album since Back on Top, Magic Time is one of Morrison’s finest post-‘80s platters, and, much like Poetic Champions Compose did with “Spanish Steps,” it lures you in immediately with the warm and enchanting sax playing on its opening cut, the ‘50s-tinged “Stranded,” while the next track, “Celtic New Year,” ranks among the legend’s greatest Irish-themed songs. The slinky groove of “Gypsy in My Soul,” the gospel-tinged “They Sold Me Out,” and the gorgeous R&B of the title cut are all highly appealing as well, and even the three standards – highlighted by a reading of Frank Sinatra’s “This Love of Mine” – are welcome inclusions and add to the general ambience of the album rather than feeling like padding. The heavy blues stylings of “Keep Mediocrity at Bay” and “Evening Train” may be of little interest to anyone but serious blues buffs and arguably arrive too early in the album’s sequencing for that reason, but that’s the lone flaw of any real note in what’s otherwise a solid effort indeed.


Pay the Devil (2006, Lost Highway)


The most maddening thing about Morrison’s post-‘80s body of work is that it’s much like Neil Young’s body of work during the ‘80s; too often, it sounds like the work of a man who’s simply doing whatever the heck he wants to do, regardless of what his label – or, more importantly, his fans – might want, and rarely has Morrison sounded more insular than he does on Pay the Devil, which is not merely a near-all-covers affair (there are three originals tossed in as well), but one comprised of covers of country-and-western tunes largely dating from the ‘50s and ‘60s, at that. Morrison’s fondness for the material is apparent throughout, but, still, the question begs to be asked: who exactly was clamoring for this disc? While one of his idols, Ray Charles, did – both on an artistic and commercial level – successfully blur the lines between R&B and country throughout much of his career, not everyone is Ray Charles, and though Morrison’s performances are mostly perfectly fine, this certainly isn’t the kind of music he does best, either. There are a few scattered highlights – particularly the closing cover of Rodney Crowell’s “’Til I Gain Control Again” – but this is ultimately his least satisfying album since You Win Again.


Keep It Simple (2008, Lost Highway)

B +

Keep It Simple is a fitting title for this disc, applying equally well to both the album’s immediate melodies and the sparse arrangements of the songs. [“How Can a Poor Boy?” packs enough instrumental ear candy into its empty spaces to make it more interesting than your average pure-blues cut from Morrison, but that’s about as busy as these tracks get arrangement-wise.]  The appealing “School of Hard Knocks” boasts shades of both Little Feat and mid-‘70s Grateful Dead, while the sunny and handclap-heavy “That’s Entrainment” delightfully recalls ‘50s pop trio The Fleetwoods’ classic chart-topper “Come Softly to Me.” The blues-country hybrid of “No Thing” and the pure country of “Song of Home” are surprisingly even stronger excursions into country territory than anything from the all-C&W-oriented Pay the Devil, and the insistent groove of “Behind the Ritual” is arguably the best closing cut on a Van Morrison album since Back on Top’s “Golden Autumn Day.” It stops shy of reaching the greatness of Magic Time, but it doesn’t miss the mark by very much, making this one of Morrison’s best latter-day outings.  


Born to Sing: No Plan B (2012, Blue Note)

A –

Even better than Keep It Simple, the amusingly-titled Born to Sing: No Plan B is both one of Morrison’s most jazz-oriented outings and one of his best post-Warner Brothers albums in any genre. Morrison sounds simultaneously relaxed and re-energized, and the tunes here are as breezy as any he’s cut in years, highlighted by the gentle grooves of “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo,” the soulful “Retreat and View,” the lovely ballad “End of the Rainbow,” and, perhaps best of all, a vocal version of the Too Long in Exile instrumental “Close Enough for Jazz” that’s both superior to and more fun than the original. The album’s noticeable slant towards Morrison’s jazzier side might mean that more pop-minded fans may prefer other and slightly-lesser latter-day albums like Keep It Simple, but in terms of general quality, this is arguably his best disc since Magic Time.  


Duets: Reworking the Catalogue (2015, RCA)


As blatant a stopgap release as Morrison has ever issued to the public, this disc finds the legendary singer revisiting songs – nearly all of them lesser-known album cuts rather than past singles, at that! – from his back catalog and re-arranging them as duets with a rotating cast of all-stars. While the concept of re-doing Down the Road’s “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?” with P.J. Proby himself is admittedly quite creative and amusing, there seems little other reason for this album to exist other than as a quick cash cow for Morrison and his label, even if Morrison’s choice of duet partners here is generally quite inspired and mostly successful. Steve Winwood (who guests on both vocals and organ) and Georgie Fame make fine fits, respectively, for “Fire in the Belly” and the ‘50s-tinged “Get on with the Show,” while Michael Buble is the perfect choice for Enlightenment’s brass-laden opener “Real, Real Gone.” Even better is the delightful re-working of Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’s “Higher than the World,” done here as a duet with – surprisingly enough – jazz great George Benson, who both sings and also provides some of his trademark guitar work; the unlikely pairing certainly seems a bit odd on paper, but it works magically and the new version of the song is both warmer than and arguably superior to Morrison’s original. The only duet that doesn’t really work is his re-working of “These Are the Days” with the late, great Natalie Cole, who does a fine job but whose warm voice and singing style simply sounds too awkward when juxtaposed with that of Morrison, the two singers having too little in common to make suitable duet partners. Overall, it’s a better disc than it has any right to be for a product of this nature, but, still, the original versions of these songs were perfectly fine, and, with the sole exception of “Higher Than the World,” none of these new recordings are likely to supplant the originals for most fans.


Keep Me Singing (2016, Caroline)


Of all Morrison’s most recent discs of mostly original material, Keep Me Singing is the one that is hurt the most by its stylistic range; the disc is very lush - but appealingly so - for much of its first half, but as the record progresses, there are several tracks that just don’t seem to fit at all and feel shoehorned into the album, namely the pure blues of “Going Down to Bangor,” the cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Share Your Love with Me,” and “The Pen Is Mightier than the Sword.” But the first half of the album is so lovely and beautiful, it nicely compensates for the hit-and-miss nature of the latter portion of the record, and tracks such as the metronome-like opener “Let It Rhyme,” the deep Philly-soul sound of “Every Time I See a River,” and the utterly tranquil ballads “Out in the Cold Again” and “Holy Guardian Angel” are all very much worth listening to. The record’s slightly-patchwork sound means that this stops ever so slightly shy of equaling Keep It Simple in terms of its strength as an album piece, but it’s got nearly just as many good songs.   


Roll with the Punches (2017, Caroline)

B –

This largely blues-oriented affair – comprised mostly of covers, though there are also five originals included, highlighted by the acoustic “Transformation” and the jazzy “Too Much Trouble” – is generally good and certainly well-performed throughout, but it stops well shy of feeling either as entertaining or as essential as the similarly-flavored Too Long in Exile, in part due to the excess of covers and in part due to simply not sounding quite as open and appealingly raw in its production.


Versatile (2017, Caroline)

C -

As prolific as he is, it was probably inevitable, but Morrison at last succumbs to that old cliché among aging rockers – the standards disc - apparently to prove he's ... well, versatile. It’s not entirely built around standards, mind you – Morrison’s tossed in a small handful of originals – but, still, most of the disc is comprised of early – and well-worn – songs from the Great American Songbook like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” It’s all passable, but it’s also not the sort of thing Van should be doing, either, not in the least since most of these songs have already been done to death, and can easily be bypassed.


You’re Driving Me Crazy (2018, Sony Legacy)


The idea of Morrison doing a full-length collaboration with organist/trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco is – on paper, at least – neither a bad one nor all that illogical. (Morrison did, after all, already do a full studio album of collaborations in the mid-‘90s with organist Georgie Fame.) But you still can’t help but feel like Morrison is spinning his wheels here – not simply because Morrison has too often resorted to discs of this nature to bide time between more traditional projects, but also because this disc is also comprised largely of new recordings of songs from Morrison’s back catalog, from Astral Weeks’ “The Way Young Lovers Do” to the title cut from Magic Time. There’s even another studio recording – his third to date – of “Close Enough for Jazz,” which previously appeared on both Too Long in Exile (albeit in instrumental form) and Born to Sing: No Plan B. The album’s a fairly pleasant listen while it’s on, but like most of his collaborative projects, it’s also largely unnecessary and is definitely recommended only to diehard fans.  


It’s criminal enough that Van Morrison only has five U.S. Top 40 hits to his name, and it’s even more bizarre and inexplicable that not a single one of his several best-of packages contain anything more than three of those five songs. [Both “Come Running” and “Blue Money” have yet to appear on any U.S. compilation by Morrison as of the date this article went to press.] Until that oversight is corrected, no Van Morrison hits disc can truly be called perfect per se, but there are still two very solid options available. The 1990 twenty-track package The Best of Van Morrison is a fixture of jukeboxes everywhere and is also the only compilation at present where you can find the Astral Weeks highlight “Sweet Thing” (and the only single-disc compilation to include Moondance’s “And It Stoned Me”); however, in addition to lacking “Come Running” and “Blue Money,” it also lacks such major career highlights as “Crazy Love,” “Wavelength,” and Morrison's most lovely ballad of all, “Someone Like You,” all three of which can thankfully be found on 2007’s Still on Top – The Greatest Hits, which, by virtue of its later release date, also manages to include such late-career highlights naturally missing from the earlier package such as “Real Real Gone,” “The Healing Game,” “Precious Time,” and “Stranded.” (However, you don’t get “Sweet Thing,” so it’s a bit of a trade-off.) If you’re willing to spring for a bigger set, the latter album is also available (as a U.K. import) in a fabulous double-disc edition (for a grand total of thirty-seven tracks) that adds such great cuts as “And It Stoned Me,” “Did Ye Get Healed?,” “Cleaning Windows,” “Back on Top” and “Tupelo Honey.”  

Live Albums:

Morrison is a notoriously inconsistent live performer – careening wildly from staging fiery shows on some nights to being downright ornery on others – but there are quite a few concert albums to choose from that captured him on a great night. For a more recent document, the limited-edition 2006 release Live at Austin City Limits Festival is quite lively and boasts a fine track selection that spans nearly his entire career, even if more casual Morrison fans aren’t likely to recognize most of the songs until you get towards the back half of the second disc. [Thankfully, Morrison is smart enough to close with the trilogy of “Wild Night,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” and “Gloria.”]  But the best Morrison live disc of all is his very first, 1974’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, which finds him turning in perhaps the most heated and electrifying performance of his life, pouncing through the best of the back catalog he’d accrued up to that point with all the determination of a performer out to silence his doubters and prove his significance in the annals of pop music.