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  Listen Up! 5/20/02 Listen Up!

Monday, May 20

Van Morrison, "Down the Road," Universal Records. I haven't sat down and listened to the last few Van Morrison albums. After reaching a late-career peak in the early 90s with that double CD the name of which escapes me right now, he settled into a period of repeating himself to less and less effect before going off the deep end with some projects that were probably a lot of fun to do but not so much fun to hear. Any way, this one came to the store as a promo, and the cover is gorgeous, an English record shop with tons of classic old vinyl in the window. So, I give it a shot, and if it's not exactly a return to his majestic form, it's a pleasant little record. As he often does, Van waxes nostalgic about the times when everything made sense to him (also known as the middle-aged-man's youth). He does so with a lot of blues feeling, lots of wide-open horn-driven arrangements, and room for the subtle warmth that's infiltrated his voice in recent years. The highlight of the album is a gorgeous rendition of "Georgia On My Mind," which he sings with all the fervor of one who can imagine the glories of a Georgia he's never seen (and I'm talking about the state in his hyper-romanticized mind, not the one he's undoubtedly performed in). The originals just might grow on me if I hear 'em a few times, but they're pretty basic, mostly blues structures. I'd stick this squarely in the middle of Van Morrison's oeuvre, which ain't a bad place for a new record for him to be at this stage of his nearly four decade-long career.

Waterson:Carthy, "Dark Light," Topic Records. Well, yeah, it's good, but it' s not breath-taking. Waterson:Carthy live thrill me, uplift me, make me laugh. This record just sounds good. Norma Waterson sings beautifully, so does Eliza Carthy. The new guy gets to sing a song, the same one he sang when I saw them play a couple weekends ago. Martin doesn't sound as commanding as usual, especially as a singer. His guitar playing is becoming more supple, less insisitently rhythmic, which is interesting, and downright lovely, but does make it harder to recognize him immediately like I could always do before. I guess, however, there's always a trade-off when brilliant musicians age and change and grow. Oh, by the way, if you don't know who these people are, or what I'm talking about, Waterson:Carthy are the premier family group in English folk music (well, not counting the Copper Family, who are older and more legendary, if less well-known). If you ever get the chance to see them live (or any of them individually), go and sit in awe.

Naughty By Nature, "Icons," TVT Records. You could probably guess by the fact that a once major rap group is reduced to recording for TVT Records that they ain't what they used to be. This is confirmed by listening to this. There sure ain't no "Hip Hop Hooray" in these guys any more. A rash of guest stars tries desperately to cover up the fact that they don't have any swing or any ideas left after all these years.

Various Artists, "Duke Reid's Rocking Steady," Rhino Records import. I've never seen this collection before, but it's a collection of some of the sweetest rock steady records of the mid to late 60s. Gorgeous, soulful vocals, surrounded by lush harmonies, and gently rocking proto-reggae rhythms. You've got the Paragons, Alton Ellis, the Techniques, the Melodians, and more. How can anybody resist the sheer sensual pleasures of these old Jamaican records?

Martha Wainwright, "Factory," no label, not even for sale unless you can track it down from her at a live show or maybe she has her own internet site (do your search, cause I didn't look yet). Martha is the sister of Rufus Wainwright, daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and talented enough to hang with all of them. This four-track EP is delicious, showcasing her muscular yet wispy vocals on three meandering ballads and a lovely cover of "Bye Bye Blackbird." She ain't as romantic a composer (as it were) as her brother, nor as intensely personal as her father, nor as wispy as her mother. But, there's a bit of all of them in her, which makes for a synthesis that's highly enjoyable. Wainwright draws you in close, and sings directly to you every time.

Pete Townshend, "Scooped," Eel Pie Recording Productions. Townshend's demo recordings are of more interest than a lot of people's finished records, but then again, I've never spent much time with his previous "Scoops" either. That's because it's interesting to hear the ideas he formed before taking the songs to the Who, and it's interesting to hear the ideas he never fully finished or decided against releasing, but it's not wholly satisfying to hear all these things in sequence. They don't cohere, and they aren't consistent. It's a record that functions as a reference work rather than an enjoyable delivery system for music.

--Steve Pick



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