Van Morrisons’s Accentuate The Positive review: Van the (grumpy) man finds his happy place, writes ADRIAN THRILLS
VAN MORRISON: Accentuate The Positive (Exile)
Verdict: Van The Man perks up
THE STRUTS: Pretty Vicious (Big Machine)
Verdict: Swaggering Brit-rock
Whatever your take on his staunch anti-lockdown views, the two double albums Van Morrison made in quarantine were tough going. Dominated by rants about social distancing, the media and music business, 2021’s sprawling Latest Record Project: Volume 1 and last year’s What’s It Gonna Take? saw the Belfast Cowboy living up to his reputation as the grumpiest man in pop.
But even a performer as outspoken as Morrison, who denounced the ‘pseudo-science’ that he believed surrounded Covid, has to lighten up sometimes, and he showed his more agreeable side in March when he released Moving On Skiffle, a homage to the jazz and skiffle that took Britain by storm in the 1950s.
He goes further on Accentuate The Positive, a joyous double LP that features some notable collaborations and sees him return to two more of his childhood loves: 1950s rock and roll and 1960s pop.
Whatever your take on his staunch anti-lockdown views, the two double albums Van Morrison made in quarantine were tough going
He goes further on Accentuate The Positive, a joyous double LP that features some notable collaborations and sees him return to two more of his childhood loves: 1950s rock and roll and 1960s pop
Covering hits made famous by the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, it takes Van, 78, back to his early days as a soulful rhythm and blues singer, and it is (whisper it) positively cheerful.
It’s a better album than Moving On Skiffle — on the strength of superior material. The rock and roll era provides plenty of rich pickings, and Morrison is a skilful interpreter.
He could probably sing these songs in his sleep and still sound engaged, but the enjoyment he gets from them is obvious and contagious, and he interacts smoothly with his band and a trio of female singers.
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He tackles two Everly Brothers numbers, adding alto sax to When Will I Be Loved and transforming Problems into an upbeat ska workout. His version of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill feels tepid, but he fares better on Bill Haley’s Two Hound Dogs (a tale of pooches named Rhythm and Blues) and Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny.
Some famous friends help out. The rockabilly hit Lonesome Train is a duet between Morrison and Chris Farlowe. Guitarist Jeff Beck, who died in January, supplies a fleet-fingered solo in what was one of his final studio sessions.
Blues musician Taj Mahal also appears, duetting on Little Richard’s Lucille and 1950s standard Shake, Rattle And Roll. ‘Taj, sing it with me,’ urges Van, emphasising the album’s spontaneous feel.
He also unearths some less celebrated gems, including Johnny Restivo’s The Shape I’m In, and expands the palette to include country tunes and Broadway standards.
There’s a reference to his Irish upbringing on Red Sails In The Sunset, inspired by the harbour resort of Portstewart.
The title track, an Oscar-nominated tune from the golden age of swing, adds further nuance. Once sung by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters, it hardly counts as a rock and roll track, but it sets the tone for this latest return.
Covering hits made famous by the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, it takes Van, 78, back to his early days as a soulful rhythm and blues singer, and it is (whisper it) positively cheerful
‘What did they do, when everything just looked dark?,’ asks Van. They accentuated the positive — just as he does here.
In writing songs in thrall to the Stones, the Faces and Britpop-era Blur, The Struts aren’t the most original band on the block.
But the Derby quartet, who paid their dues on the live circuit, play with a spirit that’s hard to resist. Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, says they are the best opening act he’s ever played with — and their fourth album strives to capture the energy of their gigs.
Pretty Vicious frames the group perfectly. Singer Luke Spiller, who moved from Bristol to Derby after meeting guitarist Adam Slack, is a showy frontman who delivers the band’s tuneful hooks with singalong zest, his lyrics ranging from the heartfelt to the self-deprecating.
On Too Good At Raising Hell, he voices his disillusionment at rock and roll excess (‘I’m still bored to death’), while Hands On Me is a power ballad as bombastic as anything by The Darkness.
‘The only way I know how long that you’ve been gone is how the mould on all the dishes seems to grow,’ he grumbles. Who says romance is dead.
Amid some good, if derivative, songs, there are two stand-outs. Rockstar nods to Bat Out Of Hell composer Jim Steinman and the short-lived girl group, Pandora’s Box, that Steinman assembled in 1989. Somebody Someday is a tender ballad about taking strength from romantic strife.
‘She just looked at me with scorn,’ sings Spiller. ‘So I went home, and I vowed I’m going to be somebody someday.’ He’s well on the way.
Van Morrison starts a tour tonight (Nov 3) at The Limelight, Belfast (vanmorrison.com).
BERLIOZ: Nuits D’Ete
Among the most gorgeous vocal sounds to be heard today is the rich contralto of Marie-Nicole Lemieux.
She included Berlioz’s lovely cycle Nuits D’Ete in her very first album in 2000 but that was with piano — and this composer always sounds very meagre without an orchestra.
Here her fine Quebecois French diction is heard against the background of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic, who know the idiom and are well conducted by Kazuki Yamada.
Ravel’s cycle Sheherazade is often placed with the Berlioz and once again, Lemieux sounds completely at home, revelling in the exotic atmosphere of the three songs.
Between the familiar sets comes Saint-Saens’s Melodies Persanes, a cycle of six songs, an introduction and an interlude, based on Persian-inspired Armand Renaud poems.
The Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice has produced a new edition, inserting two orchestral passages from the cantata the composer fashioned out of the cycle; it works a treat.
FAURÉ: Nocturnes & Barcarolles
This is not a disc for triskaidekaphobics (folks with a dread fear of the number 13) as Gabriel Fauré wrote a baker’s dozen of both Nocturnes and Barcarolles.
For everyone else, and especially those who love French piano music but have had quite enough of Debussy and Ravel for the time being, it will bring balm to the weary soul.
Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has a reputation for tackling fearsome virtuoso music but here he deploys his technique to clarify the texture of Fauré’s keyboard style.
The 26 pieces do not give up all their secrets at first hearing but they do grow on the listener, as I have discovered from previous encounters featuring French pianists.
Two already well-filled CDs are turned into something of a bargain by the inclusion of the charming four-hand Dolly Suite, in which Hamelin is joined by wife Cathy Fuller.
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