Keep It Simple
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Van Morrison’s craggy image on the cover of “Keep It Simple” makes him look like he should be the fifth face on Mount Rushmore. The eleven songs on the album are far less coarse. Now 62, Morrison has eased into his Medicare years as a fatherly R & B/rock guru. His new album doesn’t have instant classic burned into its grooves like 1971’s “Tupelo Honey,” or the bump a minute funk of 1977’s “Period Of Transition,” but each subdued track locks in place with the next as if it were a patch in a quilt, and together the songs form a beautiful musical tapestry. Van the man keeps it simple, and the result is his best effort since 1978’s “Wavelength.”
Morrison has a habit of recruiting name musicians, many of whom are mid-range legends in their own right. (For example, he tabbed New Orleans voodoo man Dr John to helm “A Period of Transition,” and during his 90’s comeback worked with keyboardist Georgie Fame, who had solo hits in the 60s with “Yeh, Yeh” and “The Ballad Of Bonnie and Clyde.” In a surprise move, he recruited the Jeff Beck Group’s powerhouse vocalist Bobby Tench as his lead guitarist for “Wavelength.”) For “Keep It Simple” Morrison has drafted guitarist Mick Green, the former strummer for Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, who were best known for “Shakin’ All Over,” (which Mick missed out playing on). Mick is also the less famous brother of 60s blues legend/acid casualty Peter Green, founder of Fleetwood Mac. It was Mick who engineered Peter’s credible 80s comeback, writing four albums worth of material for his medicated brother. Unfortunately, few noticed it was Mick, not Peter writing the songs. It was also rumored that Mick played the captivating chords on well received albums such as “White Sky” and “The Dreamer.” That might be giving Mick a bit too much credit. You only have to hear a few notes to be able to name that Green. Peter’s a head-turning lead guitarist, a virtual sweet spot machine, while Mick’s a master of subtle fills. Playing alongside veteran Morrison band member and fellow guitarist Johnny Platania, Green keeps it simple.
Van deals from a well developed strength with “How Can A Poor Boy.” It’s a loafing, shuffling blues with tight bleats of harp from Ned Edwards, soulful back up from the trio of Crawford Bell, Stevie Lange and Margo Buchanan, and a dog-paddle drum beat laid down by Neal Wilkinson. (Given how sour Buchanan and Lange sounded on the live tribute to Jim Capaldi, their harmonies with Crawford either represent a great turnaround or commendable technical trickery.) “How Can A Poor Boy” is very much like Paul Butterfield’s work with Better Days, who coincidently recorded a song entitled “Poor Boy.” John Allair’s fluttery work on the Hammond organ rates an exuberant “Yeah!” from Morrison, and you’ll like it too. Is “How Can A Poor Boy” autobiographical? Perhaps. “I’ve been appointed, even magnified. Spied a chapel all of gold, the priest was laying down with the swine….How can a poor boy get a little message to you? How can a poor boy when he don’t believe anything is true? How can a poor boy get this message through to you? How can a poor boy when he don’t believe a single thing is true?” Add this to your list of Van Morrison essential tracks.
A bit obtuse lyrically (“No wave length, no mileage, no current currency. No answers, just silence and that’s what it’s supposed to be), “School of Hard Knocks” draws from a little bit of Green, Mick Green that is. By the third verse, ambling Van picks up a
pew-rocking chorus of singers comprised of Bell, Karen Hamill and Jerome Rimson, who help lift the song from wishy-washy country to spiritual bliss.
I know Morrison’s latched onto a standard or two in his time (check out his soused rendition of “Tura Lura Lural (That’s An Irish Lullaby)” with equally pixilated Richard Manuel on the Band’s “Last Waltz). So my first concern with “That’s Entrainment” was the fear he was donning a Bob Fosse hat for some Judy Garland big production number. Happily, it’s an original – a primal love letter written by Van to his paramour: “You make me holler when you come around, you make me holler when you shake ‘em on down.” I can’t picture Judy or Ethel Merman cranking out that phrase. Morrison’s intelligent enough to realize his vocal limitations. He could have turned this into a lustful John Lee Hooker snarler or a chord crunching Van Halen stomper, but the song rolls at a peaceful, yet soulful pace. Don’t ask me what the heck entrainment is, though. (Guess it’s like having your heart dragged along like a train, or something similar.)
“Don’t Go To Nightclubs Anymore” offers up Van on the chitlin’ circuit, serving up slinky, smokey blues with the type of sway that could be part of Big Joe Turner’s slower repertoire. You get more thick Jimmy Reed Hammond rolls from Allair and finger-curling riffs from Edwards and Platania. The background singers have the richness and presence of the Raylettes, helping prop up one of the album’s more predictable but still enjoyable excursions.
Folk meets Celtic music with “Lover Come Back.” “Lover” has the simplicity and charm of the romantic “Hungry For Your Love” from “Wavelength.” Edwards and Platania make sweet sounds with their guitars that will remind you of the gentle hum expensive crystal makes when you rub your finger around the top of the glass. Cindy Cashdollar (yeah that’s really her name) and her steel guitar add a bit of country waltz to the proceedings. Mark this down… “Lover Come Back” is one of the few songs where the intrusion of the pedal steel’s cousin doesn’t rot the floorboards of the melody. Caress it!
Van says “Keep It Simple”…and he does, playing ukulele on the title track, in which he’s joined by Geraint Watkins on accordion, Mick Green on guitar, Paul Moore on bass, and Neal Wilkinson on drums. “Keep It Simple” maintains the “Old Susannah” feel established by “Lover Come Back.” A hearty vocal from Morrison, and rough but controlled chording from Green keep things from being too simple. “Keep It Simple” may not be a gem, but it has the makings of a song that could grow on ya.
The “End Of The Land” doesn’t cut new ground, but is another one of Morrison’s songs that wash over you like a church hymn – somehow you feel cleansed and more insightful after listening to it. “Song Of Home” summons up sights and sounds witnessed by the Irish immigrants who settled in the U.S. Coming on the heels of “End Of The Land,” “Songs Of Home” is a bit too similar in structure, but is east to digest, with Allair’s Hammond warm and welcoming and Van casting visions of harbor lights, foghorns, and birds on the wing flying free. Sarah Jory’s steel guitar and banjo give this more of a Celtic country cornpone veneer than it needs. (I told you, that bloody instrument gives me a steely feeling.)
Van delves into his Ray Charles bag with “No Thing,” adding some vocal swagger and a chorus of country Raylettes. Cindy Cashdollar (who’s much more creative and tolerable with her potentially hazardous steel guitar than Sarah Jory), returns to give a unique Tex Mex meets brother Ray mix, and Allair cheers up his Hammond, making it sound like a pipe organ. “So I watch them come and go, I don’t have time for the status quo.”
Only Van Morrison could offer up a song that has nothing in common with R & B and name it “Soul.” “Soul” is another potentially weak tune that’s enlivened by Morrison’s reedy sax solo and the exalted choral back ups of Bell, Hamill and Rimson. Nearly every line begins with “Soul is…” so lyrically it’s monotonous, but repetition has always been one of Morrison’s strong points (You want repetition? Try “The Eternal Kansas City” from “A Period Of Transition.” “Excuse me, do you know the way to Kansas City?” is about the only lyric in the entire song. Thanks to Van’s mastery of K.C. Jazz he pulls it off.) Morrison often turns phrases that look mundane on paper into transcendental chants or musical poetry, and with “Soul” he does it again.
One in a while, Morrison hums/mumbles his was through a song like Marlon Brando playing Don Corleone with half a box of cotton balls in his cheeks, which is how he comes across during the verses for “Behind The Ritual.” Like “Soul,” “Behind The Ritual,” builds its attraction subtlety through Morrison’s resonant sax solo, the slap happy beat, and the shared joy of the back singers. Each time Morrison circles back to the chorus a new instrument or a voice joins in. Morrison does make one huge mistake, choosing to scat to “Blah…blah...blah…blahblahblahblah…” Yes, he actually says blah…blah...blah. As a consequence, the songs rep takes a serious hit – C’mon Van, you could come up with something better than that! Up to this side-splitting moment, “Behind The Ritual” is one of the albums standout tracks. It’s still a great listen, but harder to take seriously after Van throws in his imitation of George Bush giving a state of the union address.
Simply put, Van is still the man. He keeps it simple with songs of home and a dose of soul. Now that’s entrainment.