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Van Morrison: Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue

Album Reviews:

Rolling Stone - 3.5 stars out of 5 -- "DUETS is as cantankerous and eccentric as any of the man's other projects. Rather than just bring in a few glossy names to decorate his greatest hits, he digs up deep cuts from mostly overlooked albums."

Album Notes

It's not hard to wonder if Van Morrison was trying to drive away listeners by titling this album Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue, a name that practically howls this is a work defined by a lack of ambition and a desire to rest on his laurels. The clumsy title is especially strange because this an honestly good album that doesn't fit those negative expectations. Even though Re-Working the Catalogue finds Morrison reviving songs from his extensive repertoire, he wisely focuses on lesser-known tunes rather than compete with his best-known work, and Morrison is able to generate a genuine enthusiasm for this music, which might not be the case if he tried to record "Moondance" or "Brown Eyed Girl" one more time. And the Belfast Soul Man for the most part has chosen duet partners with intelligence; rather than load up this set with current chart-toppers who have little knowledge of Morrison's legacy, most of the singers working with Morrison are cut from similar cloth, such as Steve Winwood, Chris Farlowe, Georgie Fame, and Bobby Womack (in what proved to be one of the latter's final recordings). If Joss Stone is considerably younger and more melismatic than Van's other partners, she understands what "Wild Honey" needs, and Michael Bublé delivers an admirably lively performance on "Real Real Gone." There are almost certainly other singers who would have sounded better on "Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?," but Mr. Proby himself seems to be in on the joke with his delivery, and Van honestly sounds like he's having a lot of fun (not a common occurrence) with Taj Mahal on "How Can a Poor Boy?" And if Mavis Staples' voice is a bit rough on "If I Ever Needed Someone," she delivers the song with a churchy authority that Morrison clearly respects. As for Van himself, at the age of 69 his vocals lack the power and emotional force he so easily conjured in the '70s, but his sense of phrasing is as soulful and idiosyncratic as it has ever been, and he seems determined to find something in these songs that he missed the first time. This could easily have been a very lazy album, but Morrison gives this material an honest and thoughtful effort. (His grainy but potent sax work is a lot of fun, too.) And the production (by Don Was) and mix (by Bob Rock) is smooth without polishing out the personality of Morrison and his guests. Recutting a batch of your old songs is usually a sign you've run out of ideas, as is recording a full album of duets; while it's hard to know what Morrison's motivations were for making Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue, the pleasant surprise is that Morrison has managed to dodge both those bullets, and if it's a long way from a triumph, it's a solid, heartfelt work from a veteran artist who isn't about to give up the ghost. ~ Mark Deming


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