Thursday, July 21, 2005

Van Morrison: The Lion in Winter

A new article for Paste Magazine ...


Incredibly, Van Morrison is 60 years old. Van the Man is now an old man, certainly old enough to kick back and enjoy the Avalon sunset if he so chooses. But don’t let him in on that secret. Most rock stars Van’s age, content to play the nostalgia game if they still play the game at all, criss-cross the world on their Oldies tours. In contrast, during the past three years Van Morrison has quietly released three new albums of original material that are some of the best of his monumental career. It is suspiciously sprightly behavior for a man who is supposed to be resting on his laurels.

The young Van the Man, of course, was a hard act to follow. Outside of the unassailable Beatles catalogue, there may not be a stronger eight-album run than the one Van unleashed with 1968’s Astral Weeks and concluded with 1974’s Veedon Fleece. During those years Morrison served up a heady fusion of deeply personal and frequently mystical songwriting, folk, R&B and Celtic musical influences, and the most electrifyingly soulful voice of the rock ‘n roll era. Coming in to his prime at the onset of the age of FM rock radio, Morrison was the perfect album-oriented artist. His best-known songs from that period– “Moondance,” “Caravan,” “Domino,” “Blue Money,” “Tupelo Honey,” “Wild Night,” “Jackie Wilson Said” – are the Holy Grail of extended soul workouts, featuring the most sublime use of strings and horns to ever appear in rock music, and a voice that was almost feral in its intensity.

Nowhere is that better illustrated than on “Listen to the Lion,” an impossibly idiosyncratic track from Van’s 1972 album St. Dominic’s Preview. For more than eleven minutes Van wrestles his lyrics like a dog worrying a bone, repeating the same phrases over and over in an incantatory prayer; whispering, moaning, cajoling, pleading, and ultimately breaking free of language altogether, soaring off into a scatting, stuttering frenzy, and finally roaring like the lion of the title before settling down again and morphing back to his normal, irascible self. I know people who hate the song, and who find it annoyingly self-indulgent. But for my blue money it is the quintessential Van Morrison moment, the most thrilling and thrillingly strange soul music, in all senses of the term, ever recorded. It is the sound of a man casting off all earthly bounds and battering down the gates of heaven.

It is also evidence of why Van Morrison, for all his undeniable greatness, has never fully received the honor he deserves. The Man’s willful obstinacy and refusal to conform to commercial trends is legendary, and at the peak of his popularity he took a left turn into mysticism, poetry, and the power of childhood memory, and never looked back. There were many high points in the fifteen or so albums he released during the 1980s and 1990s, a few low points, and a lot of head-scratching weirdness – odes to theosophy, tributes to skiffle bands and blues singer Mose Allison, duets with rockabilly artist Linda Gail Davis, heartfelt hymns of praise to John Donne, musical settings of poems by William Blake, and, at one point, quirky literary R&B workouts that included lines such as, “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge/Baby?” Baby probably had not, and by evidence of album sales, neither had many other people.

So it may be somewhat understandable if the last three albums – Down the Road, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, and Magic Time – have been met with polite indifference. So let me attempt to lift the lethargy. These three albums rank with the best music Van Morrison has ever created. And they deliberately hearken back to, and frequently recapture, the feral energy of the great early albums.

On Magic Time, his latest album, the comparisons are deliberate and direct. “Celtic New Year” is a simmering ballad that favorably compares to “Tupelo Honey” in its slow burn, and that finds Van scatting off into the kind of ecstatic epiphany that has always marked his finest work. “Evening Train” is equal parts John Lee Hooker and Irish soul, raw and insistent, driven by a dirty baritone sax that recalls the great R&B sides Van cut with his seminal band Them. And thirty-three years after the original roar, a song called “The Lion This Time” finds Van wondering if the king of beasts still holds any terror. “The lion this time,” he sings, “He’s in the circus in a cage.” Don’t believe it. Behind a deceptively lovely string arrangement, Van finds the ancient growl intact, gradually building his vocal throughout the song until he is roaring down those who would have him go gentle into that good night. Van understands all to well that old age should burn and rave at close of day.

It is further evidence, if any is needed, of what Van Morrison has always been, and of what he refuses to become. Don’t be fooled by the lion this time. You expect to encounter a tired legend, a once-mighty king becalmed and tamed by the miles and years. You find instead an echo of a full-throated roar hanging in the air, the telltale signs of a bloody struggle, and an empty cage. The lion in winter is on the loose.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Come On, Watch the Illinoise

This is a Thursday (7/14) performance of Sufjan Stevens and friends in the KCRW studios in Santa Monica, California. It's about forty minutes, and requires high bandwidth, but if you've got the time and the right Internet connections, it's well worth watching.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Paste Magazine News

Paste is growing like my lawn in the midst of daily thundershowers and 90 degree temperatures. Very fast. Fortunately, I don't have to mow Paste.

-- The printing order for the next issue (#17 with Death Cab for Cutie on the cover, out in a couple weeks) is 225,000 copies. Compare to 20,000 copies for Issue #1 three years ago. This is fabulous news. In addition to a 20 - 22 song CD with each issue, Paste is now including a DVD sampler in all copies of the magazine (previously only available to subscribers, so you were out of luck if you bought the magazine over the counter) and this issue's DVD includes videos from Postal Service, Paul McCartney, My Morning Jacket, Lucinda Williams, Son Volt, Death Cab for Cutie, Public Enemy, INXS, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, Beulah and more.

-- The Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have all run feature articles on and said nice things about Paste in the last couple months.

-- Paste Picks, where Paste editors Josh Jackson and Nick Purdy pontificate about their favorite new music, is now a weekly feature on CNN, 1:54 p.m. every Tuesday. Yes, you should take off work.

-- The first Paste podcast is a week from Monday, July 25th. The Paste Magazine Culture Club will be a weekly podcast with interviews with musicians, filmmakers and authors, audio essays and more. Those of you who are interested will now not only be able to read my words, but also hear my mellifluous tones every week. :-)

Monday, July 11, 2005

Best, Most Disappointing, and Worst 2005 Albums -- The Tally Thus Far

We're only halfway through the year, but here are my early nominees:


Sufjan Stevens -- Come on, Feel the Illinoise -- It's a dumb title. And it's a dubious idea -- writing a concept album about the state of Illinois. To his credit, though, Stevens pulls it off brilliantly, scoring complex orchestral arrangements, offering disarmingly gentle, lovely folk songs that hide a barbed sting, mixing almost every style of music imaginable, and plumbing the depths of the mysteries of God. Round of applause for the most musically creative, thoughtful album I've heard this year.

Van Morrison -- Magic Time -- Van will be 60 in another month, and by all rights he has no business creating masterpieces at this advanced stage of his career. But he's quietly released three great albums in a row. Magic Time surveys all of the many styles he's incorporated into his music, and more than half these original songs sound like old standards you'd swear you've heard before, but have not. Van's voice no longer has the uncontained wildness of his early work. "The Lion This Time" intentionally hearkens back to his early '70s classic "Listen to the Lion," and this time Van claims that the lion is in a circus in a cage. Don't believe it. Van may have mellowed, but he's far from tamed, and this album is an almost impossibly great rejection of those who would have him go gently into that good night.

The Mars Volta -- Frances the Mute -- Overblown. Disjointed. Incomprehensible. All of those charges have been leveled against this album, and they're all correct. So what? It's also relentlessly eclectic, mixing heavy metal, blues, salsa, free jazz, and progressive rock, features the most furious guitar riffing you'll hear this year, and unleashes a vocalist who sounds like the second coming of Robert Plant. All of that, and the ridiculously fun over-the-top story line, are more than enough to warrant its inclusion on the Good to Great side of the ledger.

Mary Gauthier -- Mercy Now -- Mary Gauthier sounds like a female version of Bob Dylan. Mary Gauthier writes like a female version of Bob Dylan. "Prayer Without Words" is the best Bob Dylan song not written by Bob Dylan. What more recommendation do you need?

Amos Lee -- Amos Lee -- It's just slightly too slick and subdued, but Amos Lee is the real deal -- a fine songwriter, a supple, soulful singer who has mastered the pleading ballad style of Otis Redding and the masterful phrasing of Dylan, and who has tapped into the jazz/folk/soul/blues hybrid that made Norah Jones such a revelation a couple years back. I can't wait to hear more.

Most Disappointing

These albums are by no means terrible, but they still resulted in a severe letdown when I heard them.

Coldplay -- X&Y -- Zzzzzzzzzz. With its unrelenting eighth notes, this album verges on the insufferably dull. It never reaches that point because the album always sounds professionallly pleasant, and Chris Martin occasionally sounds engaged. But too much of the music on X&Y strikes me as perfunctory and safe. A big letdown after A Rush of Blood to the Head.

Bruce Springsteen -- Devils and Dust -- Eh. The latest in Springsteen's batch of predominantly folkie albums, this one has more musical variety than the mediocre The Ghost of Tom Joad, but less lyrical nuance than that album. Too much of this album sounds like Springsteen the Evangelist. He can still convince me to hop in the car and go for a ride, but he can't convince me that John Kerry was the solution to all our problems.


Willie Nelson -- Countryman -- The image of the marijuana leaf on the cover pretty much says it all. Only someone with a strong attraction to the locoweed could think that mixing Willie's nasal whine, dobros and pedal steel guitars, and dub beats might work. This is Willie attempting reggae music, mon, and the results sound about as bad as you would imagine. Red eyes cryin' in the rain.

The Dissociatives -- The Dissociatives -- The Dissociatives "feature" Daniel Johns, the lead singer/songwriter from Silverchair, a band that never deserved a second incarnation. Shedding the grunge-lite reputation of his former band, Johns returns as a tuneless Radiohead-lite, and warbles such stirring sentiments as "All of this time on my hands/So far has gone/To feeding my animals/Na Na Na" on "Horror With Eyeballs," an apt description of the singer and his songwriting abilities. One listen was enough for me to dissociate myself from further barnyard mayhem.

Skye Moore -- I'm Flyin'-- We'll ignore the soap opera name for a moment. But Skye looks like Fabio, and that can't be ignored, or excused. And he sings power ballads like a preening Jon Bon Jovi imitator on karaoke night at the local bar. The end result is a sort of Sensitive Soft Metal/Chippendale's Hard Body dynamic that is sure to please middle-aged housewives from Peoria who are visiting Las Vegas. And not many other people. It's not for the faint of heart, although it's quite funny in its unintentional way.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Fear Factor

Terrorist bombs in London! And the television networks immediately kick it in to overdrive, featuring round-the-clock coverage of the same shots of wounded, dazed Londoners walking around with blood on their faces, again and again and again. How many are dead? We don't know. But we'll speculate, round the clock, about the number, and we'll update the total every ten minutes, and we'll make sure to keep showing those shots of the dazed Londoners with the bloody faces.

A little over a year ago, a similar event happened in Madrid, Spain. It turned out that 192 people were killed in a series of terrorist train bombings. And it appears likely that the London bombings, tragic as they are, will not be of that scope or magnitude. Yet we didn't see round-the-clock coverage of the Madrid bombings. Our regular programming wasn't breathlessly interrupted to broadcast the faces of bloody, dazed Spaniards.


I don't know, but I have some ideas. It might have something to do with the fact that those crazy Spaniards don't look like us or sound like us. They seem more remote, more "foreign," if you will. But those English lads and lassies could almost pass for residents of God's own U.S. of A. They look like us. They sound like us, but with those charming accents. And because of that, we watch in horror. It could have been us. It has been us. The Spaniards? Well, that's too bad, but they can go back to their bullfights and they'll be okay.

A couple days ago John McCollum raised the intriguing case of one Reyna Alvarado-Carerra , a 13-year-old Hispanic girl from Norcross, Georgia who was kidnapped a couple weeks before the suddenly ubiquitous Nattalee Holloway. Ever heard of Reyna Alvarado-Carerra? Neither had I, until John brought her to my attention. She wasn't deemed newsworthy.

Again, why?

Here's a wild guess: Because she didn't inspire fear, and fear increases news ratings.

Don't get me wrong. I think what happened in London is horrible. I'm saddened and disturbed by it, and my heartfelt prayers are offered for those who suffered, and for their families. And I truly hope and pray that Nattalee Holloway will somehow be found alive, and will be reuinted with her distraught family.

But Nattalee's story is national (international?) news, and the London bombings are round-the-clock news, only because they play into our fears. And it is the job of the U.S. news media to whip up fear, because fear means viewers. It also explains why Reyna Alvarado-Carerra isn't in the news. Reyna Alvarado-Carerra doesn't look like most of the daughters of all those worried and fearful moms and dads who expectantly tune in to the latest news. It doesn't matter that her case is just as important, and just as tragic, as that of Nattalee Holloway. Reyna Alvarado-Carerra doesn't look like Miss Teen U.S.A. She has no marketability. And sadly, in a world where neatly-coiffed talking heads still rationalize their dubious trade as objective reporting, the news today is all about marketability. Merchandising and manipulating fear is big business. Have you had your dose of horror today? Just flip on your TV.