Music

Van Morrison: Duets: Re-Working The Back Catalogue

Forgoing the obvious hits and contemporary pop star collaborators, iconoclast Van Morrison raises the bar for what duet albums can and should be.


Van Morrison

Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue

Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2015-03-23
UK Release Date: 2015-03-16
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Duets albums are often problematic for a number of reasons. Generally endeavored by aging musicians looking to reach a younger audience by pairing with contemporary pop stars with whom they have little to nothing in common, musically or otherwise, these sessions can be awkward at best and career-tarnishing train wrecks at worst. Carrying an unmistakable air of commerce, these quick cash-ins may look good on paper but rarely result in any sort of satisfactory artistic fruition. There are, of course, exceptions to this phenomenon, and thankfully Van Morrison’s Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue is just that: exceptional.

By largely eschewing younger artists in favor of his contemporaries (Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe, P.J. Proby, and Steve Winwood, among others), Morrison elevates his duets collection from mere cash-in to thoughtful artistry. Given the diversity of his sparring partners, the album shows he’s lost none of his stylistic sense of adventure. While sticking largely to soul and R&B territory, there are touches of jazz, country, pop balladry, and sundry spaces in between.

Adhering to a clearly thought out approach in both song and artists selections, the few younger duet partners share a direct musical lineage with the various facets of Morrison’s omnivorous musicality. While Joss Stone’s verses on “Wild Honey” sound uncharacteristically reserved, her previous work with assorted American soul legends makes her a natural collaborator with Morrison. So too is the choice of Gregory Porter on “The Eternal Kansas City”. With its bluesy jazz arrangement, Porter, a powerhouse vocalist deserving of broader recognition, shines along side Morrison, who is clearly enjoying himself. It’s a mind-blowing session that finds both singers going toe-to-toe before ultimately ending in a draw.

Morrison, too, finds a sympathetic set of ears in primary co-producer Don Was. Together they achieve a conviviality reminiscent of Solomon Burke’s stellar 2002 covers album, Don’t Give Up on Me. Like that album, Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue favors tailor-made arrangements and song choices perfectly suited to the performers’ strengths. Not content to simply sing and produce, Morrison delivers a competent, if somewhat rudimentary, alto sax solo on “Higher Than the World”, a duet with George Benson.

Proving himself a marvelous duet partner both in front of and behind the boards, Morrison refrains from a demonstrative, heavy-handed approach. Far from the cantankerous crank he’s long been made out to be (rightly or wrongly so), throughout the LP he seems downright affable, thrilled with being able to perform with nearly everyone here. Rather than engaging in vocal pissing matches, he favors nuance and supportive shading, crafting truly blended duets.

Front-loading the set with soul giants Bobby Womack and Mavis Staples on “Some Peace of Mind” and “If I Ever Needed Someone”, Morrison shows his clear infatuation with American soul music. Himself a master of blue-eyed soul, his keening vocals mesh perfectly with both Womack and Staples. Throughout each duet, he sounds downright exuberant teamed with this pair of soul legends, finding himself more than holding his own.

While certainly having matured and settled into a slightly lower register, Morrison’s voice still posses the raw power and intensity that made it so compelling, both with Them and as a solo artist. This retention of vocal prowess shows an artist in complete control of his instrument, effortlessly revisiting and bringing new life to his back catalog, imbuing each song with warmth that feels more essential than perfunctory.

Opting for deeper, more recent cuts in favor of the obvious classic hits, Duets shows an artist who takes his work seriously enough to put deliberate and measured thought into the whole of the process, creating art for art’s sake rather than financial gain. Only “Carrying the Torch”, a somewhat overwrought ballad with Clare Teal, feels slightly incongruous. A lovely song, placed in any other context it would likely shine. Here it feels a detour from Morrison’s true stylistic passions. By contrast, Teal’s voice is a bit too pure and, like Stone’s tepid performance, lacks the necessary grain and character to stand alongside Morrison at his best.

Sung as a straight duet, “Get on With the Show” finds Morrison and Fame twinning their vocals, singing in a densely tangled style that often finds one overlapping the other. Morrison’s iconic burr manages to overpower Fame’s more subtle approach, lessening the effect of what could’ve created work akin to Fame’s own duets with Alan Price. But still, like his duets with Winwood (“Fire in the Belly“) and Chris Farlow (“Born to Sing“), it’s a thrill to hear these two contemporaries together.

All in all, Duets serves as a triumphant summation of a stellar career now spanning over half a century. Allowing others to join the celebration simply makes it all the more enjoyable, and a treat for those fans of both Morrison and his duet partners.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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