Van Morrison -- "Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue," RCA Records
The duets format can be a lazy way to go, a predictable romp that showcases familiar old songs. Not so with Van Morrison's new collection "Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue" which skips obvious hits like "Moondance" and "Brown-Eyed Girl" for overlooked, sometimes eccentric tracks from memorable albums like "The Healing Game" and "A Period of Transition."
The result is a warm, refreshing look at the stunning breadth of Morrison's poetic compositions, dating back nearly five decades. It's all here: The devotion to American rhythm and blues roots, the moody introspection, the search for transcendence. There is no particular concept, no chronological tale, but the music is unified by his fierce vision, and set off by his magnificent voice (untrammeled by time) and some tasty horn work.
The choice of collaborators is revealing: Mavis Staples, with her golden voice and long family history; jazz singer Gregory Porter (who finally makes some of the mumbled lyrics to the exuberant "The Eternal Kansas City" intelligible); and Taj Mahal, who seems to nail "How Can A Poor Boy" on the very first take. Their easy camaraderie makes one miss the late John Lee Hooker, who teamed with Morrison for some of the finest duets of their respective careers.
Morrison also includes some of the early English rockers who were on the way up when he first surfaced in the mid-'60s. Chris Farlowe, who has joined Morrison on stage at times, teams up with him on "Born To Sing" and former bandmate Georgie Fame duets on "Get On With the Show." P.J. Proby makes a surprise, slightly self-mocking appearance in "Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby", a nostalgic homage to the early days.
Some of the songs may send fans back to the original albums, particularly "Streets of Arklow," a cut from Morrison's brilliant, Irish-tinged "Veedon Fleece" presented here in tandem with Mick Hucknall. There's plenty to hear, and there's plenty more hidden away in Morrison's impressive archives.