Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Short Takes -- Van Morrison, Dub Pistols, The Acorn, Eddie Clearwater

Van Morrison – Keep It Simple

I love Van Morrison. But this is a disaster. Throughout his brilliant career Van has periodically phoned it in. And yes, that’s a bad connection you’re hearing. Consider this one then as a workmanlike but uninspired effort, full of predictable, generic rhymes, tepid R&B horn arrangements, and vocals totally lacking in soul and fire. Van, never known to back away from a headscratcher, offers a song called “That’s Entrainment,” which the dictionary defines as “To carry along (a dissimilar substance, as drops of liquid) during a given process such as evaporation or distillation.” Sounds like the blues to me. This is perhaps Van’s laziest and most confounding album ever.

Dub Pistols – Speakers and Tweeters

The Dub Pistols carry on proudly in the 2-Tone tradition of The Specials and The English Beat, mixing in whipsmart rap and house ingredients with the ska and reggae influences. Specials frontman Terry Hall drops by for a few tracks. There’s a mindblowing cover of Blondie’s “Rapture.” Best of all is the seamless fusion of skittering hip-hop beats, blaring trombones, and Cockney rhymes. Alternately playful, spacy, and pissed off, but always relentlessly danceable (you should watch me try), Speakers and Tweeters is one superb album. It’s been out for a while, but it’s new to me, so consider it an idiosyncratic early contender for Album of the Year.

The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain

Let’s hear it for the oft-maligned concept album. This one, the debut full-length from Ottawa’s The Acorn, is dedicated to mom, perhaps a first in the annals of alienated indie rock. In this case mom is Gloria Esperanza Montoya (the album title is a rough translation of her name), and lead singer/songwriter Rolf Klausener wants you to know about her and the remarkable life she’s led. Employing a quavery folk tenor, indigenous Honduran instruments, and the occasional post-rock crescendo, Klausener and his bandmates offer a suite of songs about a woman who entered the world as a destitute orphan, endured domestic abuse and grinding poverty, and eventually made the long journey north to Canada. There are sentimental pitfalls galore in this approach, but Klausener mostly avoids them, offering impressionistic outlines rather than straightforward narratives, and keeping the syrupy melodrama to a minimum. It’s an understated love letter, and it’s a beauty.

Eddie Clearwater – West Side Strut

Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater recorded his first tracks as an eleven-year-old in Cincinnati in 1961, so to call him a blues veteran is an understatement. But there’s no coasting here. Possessed of a guitar style that is equally indebted to Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry, Clearwater and his guitar slinger cohorts (Ronnie Baker Brooks, Ronnie’s papa Lonnie) rip through a set of blues standards and a half dozen originals that sound like standards. This is Chicago blues (with some rock ‘n roll blurring of the lines) the way it was always meant to be played, full of raw energy, passion, and stinging guitar leads.

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