As many people suspect, albums based on duets and guests for features are often directionless excursions.
Some work (Santana’s Supernatural), but they often signify writer’s block or worse: the telltale sign of a flagging career. This is definitely not the case with Van Morrison’s Duets: Reworking the Catalogue. The legendary Irish singer sounds strong and self assured and his choice of material casts his music into interesting corners.
If he had stopped at Gloria or Moondance, Morrison’s place in the rock pantheon would have been assured, but he went further into more earthy and visionary sounds. Duets explores his lesser known material.
Morrison’s voice and interpretive powers are in full force. His performances here carry the day and he traverses between R&B, jazz, blues and folk. It’s a typical gig for Morrison but are his partners up for the show? That’s where the duet album succeeds. Morrison is a deceptive sparring partner – his ad libs are off-hand but convey as much as a precise hook. The material is tasteful and well-chosen, merging Morrison’s back catalogue of more than 40 years with ease.
In a nod to his past, Morrison recruits early British rockers, Georgie Fame, PJ Proby and Chris Farlowe on good time tunes of hearty nostalgia. Steve Winwood is a logical sonic mix on the slow burning, Fire in the Belly. The two are cut from the same cloth.
Taj Mahal’s contribution to the seldom heard blues, How Can a Poor Boy, is offhand and gritty. It also suggests a natural compatability.
The peak moments here are the subtle folk-tinged songs.
Rough God Goes Riding is poetic and gentle, adding contrast to the forceful duet with daughter, Shana Morrison.
Streets of Arklow has a similar ambiance with mystic images of landscapes, gypsies and seashore. Morrison’s collaboration with ‘80s Brit rocker Mick Hucknall (Simply Red) is an inspired choice for the song.
The album’s only misstep occurs on its best known song, Real Real Gone. The song has enough R&B based energy to carry itself and Morrison responds to the call in like fashion. His partner, Michael Buble fails to heed the summons, even though it is a love song (Buble’s usual choice of material).
Van the Man wants to rock and Buble’s enervating performance threatens to thwart him, but thankfully fails. The song wins and his work is done.