Van Morrison Rises To The Occasion With ‘The Prophet Speaks’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Van Morrison’s been unusually prolific the past couple years, alternating album releases between the Sony Legacy and Caroline International labels (the latter the source of his latest). But The Belfast Cowboy was getting dangerously close to pure formula until he collaborated with Joey DeFrancesco and his band on You’re Driving Me Crazy, released earlier this year.

Arguably one of the best records of 2018, this album followed in the conceptual footsteps of Versatile and Roll With the Punches, combinations of Morrison originals incorporated with blues and r&b standards. But there’s an unmistakable mutual delight permeating Van The Man’s collaboration with the organist/trumpeter and his group, one so pervasive as to fully and completely distinguish the record from its immediate predecessors.

Commencing The Prophet Speaks with a lighthearted “Gonna Send You Back To Where I Got You From.” Van, Joey et. al., pick right up where they left off, romping into action with sly singing from the author of “Brown-eyed Girl,” the sure rhythm of drummer Michael Ode and a pithy guitar break by Dan Wilson. The fivesome’s easy shuffle through John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” sounds perfectly natural as well, punctuated (as the last album so often was) with Morrison’s impromptu vocal exhortations, an intro of sorts for DeFrancesco’s organ solo, just prior to Troy Roberts’ sax break.

All of this takes place before Van proceeds to improvise a gleeful harmonica bit. If all this doesn’t sound like the work of musicians who love what they’re doing together, “Got to Go Where the Love Is” should convince, adorned as it is with simple, earthy horn charts evoking nothing so much as Morrison during His Band And The Street Choir era. Such direct reference to vintage sounds not only distinguishes this new album from its immediate predecessor but bespeaks Van’s level of comfort with his past the often cantankerous artist hasn’t always displayed. It’s particularly noteworthy too because this tune is one of the six originals here.

But considering that this inveterate iconoclast began a closely-supervised archiving of his vault in 2016, his open attitude shouldn’t be all that surprising, only that he should infuses this new work of his with a similarly relaxed air. As Morrison uses his voice as an instrument to comp his way through The wry double entendre in the title, “5 am Greenwich Mean Time,” DeFrancesco and company’s backing doesn’t sound much any less sprightly than the more literal take on Sam Cooke’s “Laughin’ and Clownin’.” And while that number of the ultra-smooth crooner’s doesn’t sound so readily-recognizable as the oft-covered “Gotta Get You Off My Mind” of Solomon Burke’s, that’s only indicative of how Morrison, DeFrancesco, et.al., commingle familiar elements to render them fresh on virtually all fourteen tracks on The Prophet Speaks.

The reciprocal joy radiating from their musicianship lessens somewhat near the end of the LP, however. Neither the overly careful title song or the penultimate track that precedes it, “Spirit Will Provide,” are in keeping with the prevalent gaiety that precedes those cuts (or the record’s comical cover photo), Nevertheless, the combined effect of the two cuts isn’t enough to seriously diminish the infectious impact of the prior hour or so.

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