Notwithstanding a theory that the standard album would be more potent with a third of its sixteen tracks subtracted, Van Morrison’s new album Duets: Re-working the Catalogue isn’t quite as cynical a ploy to widen his audience as the subtitle suggests. Nevertheless, in collaborating on a selection of songs suggested by the man himself and his singing partners to shed light on some of his lesser-known tunes, the Belfast Cowboy both reaffirms and undermines some of his very own strengths.
Michael Buble has recorded covers of Van Morrison material (“Crazy Love,” “Moondance”), the predictable likes of which the author seeks to avoid here. And certainly their chosen match, “Real Real Gone,” sounds outside the Grammy-winning singer’s comfort zone, so it’s little wonder, that, even with the backing led by his musical director, he sounds tentative. Like the predictable Gregory Porter track, “The Eternal Kansas City,” there’s no comparison in the depth of emotion between the guest and the host
Having cultivated an irascible persona via less than revealing interviews over the years as well as erratic performances where the gives short shrift to the concept of “the show must go on,” it’s hard to take Van Morrison at face value on a song like “Some Peace of Mind.” Yet, as is the case with the work he does here with long -time collaborator Georgie Fame during “Get On with the Show,” the presence of Bobby Womack allows the sentiment of the song to come through despite the defensive attitude at the heart of it
The glossy strings and horns in that arrangement blunt the emotional content to a great degree, but that’s hardly the case with “Lord If Ever Needed Someone.” Performed with an admirable spontaneity in call and response mode, the presence of organ enhances the churchy spirituality of the song, while the horns are straight out of His Band and The Street Choir (not surprisingly, the record from which this cut’s taken). As Van Morrison makes the effort he does here to reach out to an audience outside his own devotees, it’d be great if those hearing Duets take the time to find the original recordings of these songs.
“Higher Than the World” gives the lie to that aforementioned prickly personality of Morrison’s as much as the prominence of partner George Benson’s guitar: the latter made a name for himself commercially by emphasizing his voice over his instrument, so this makes for one of the most provocative turns on this record. The borderline middle-of-the-road orchestration of “Wild Honey,” however, doesn’t allow either Morrison or Joss Stone’s emotions to carry their weight. In marked contrast is the restraint in evidence on “Carrying A Torch” where both Van and British jazz chanteuse Clare Teal connect with each other and the sentiment.
It might be convenient to blame co-producers Bob Rock and Don Was for the self-indulgent charts here except that Morrison has a co-credit on the album in this department too (and past records of his, such as Avalon Sunset, from which comes the piece with Natalie Cole, “These Are the Days”) are in a similarly antiseptic realm); the otherwise reliable presence of a core band on most of the album too often turns merely anonymous. On the other hand, “Streets of Arklow” (from one of Morrison’s greatest records, Veedon Fleece) is much different in that the pinpoint precision of diction the author and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall demonstrate sounds like nothing so much as the means to keep their feelings in check, while the tasteful electric guitar serves a similar purpose. Like “Irish Heartbeat” the quietly reflective cut with Mark Knopfler, this live take with Taj Mahal. “How Can A Poor Boy?,” is yet another instance where simplicity serves everyone involved (and the chosen material) extremely well.
Which may be the overall lesson to be gleaned from Duets : Re-Working the Catalogue if not for a greater insight: it’d be beneficial for Van Morrison to work with a producer who would have the presence of mind—not to mention a sufficiently healthy detachment from his subject’s reputation—to firmly steer him in the direction of what really works on its own terms. That might result in more engrossing moments like Van Morrison’s genuine heartfelt interaction with Steve Winwood on “Fire in the Belly” where these two veterans sound like the kindred spirits and modern soul men both of them are.