Van Morrison

    {grate 2.5} As far as lowdown, homespun country and blues records go,
    Van Morrison sure has reigned as its king for nearly the past 40 years. The
    Irish wailer who ripped from his musical soul two of classic rock’s most crucial
    albums, Astral Weeks and Moondance, has always been one for mixing more than a
    fair share of R&B and jazzy vocal turns.

    But we’re hitting the 39th album of his solo career
    (stemming back to 1967, after his stint as frontman of early band Them), and although
    his voice still retains the mysticism that lured even the college crowd to his
    early work (hell, even on recent fare like 2002’s Back on Top), Keep It Simple
    seems muffled by the repetition of Morrison’s backing crew. You can’t compare
    his latest efforts to his earlier genius or expect an artist to remain in one
    state forever, but there’s a point when the production seems to phone it in.
    You can only take drum-rim clicks for so long.

    Opener “How Can a Poor Boy?” and “School of Hard Knocks” try
    to show off Van the Man as an old, downtrodden Southern sage, likely to have
    sold his soul to the devil for pure vocals, but with the chain-gang harmonica
    and gospel organ steaming off the background it sounds like an album we’ve
    already heard. Such is the way Simple goes; comforting yet predictable.
    Morrison is, in fact, keeping it simple.

    His wildly soulful vocals grow on you with each listen,
    making Simple’s execution all the more depressing. He’s clearly in a state of
    grace, consumed by the divine fire of song, like on “That’s Entrainment” or
    “Song of Home,” kept only from levitating above us all by the backing band.
    Standing alone, the music comes off as soft jazz junk for baby boomers. The
    only thing missing is the Kenny G solo (that fear is alleviated with a
    similarly styled soprano sax on “Soul”).

    Morrison’s easy to love. His voice is harsh without being
    grating, sweet without being nostalgic. When left with music designed for a
    doctor’s waiting room, though, the result is a soundtrack for two yuppies’ postmenopausal
    lovemaking. For the soul-searching student — well, we’d prefer not to confront
    that yet.

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