Down the Road
With his trademark transatlantic growl and impeccable sense of timing, Van Morrison is the stuff of legend. As has so often been noted, this guy could sing the proverbial phone book and still keep an audience enraptured, and his live recordings always have magical moments. Despite this, Morrison's propensity to dabble has made some of his latest studio recordings rather hit-or-miss.
Morrison's often idiosyncratic taste in music and collaborators sometimes works wonderfully well and produces classics. (His work with John Lee Hooker and the Chieftains being good examples.) But sometimes these experiments just leave you wondering what the appeal was in the first place. Remember that weird skiffle album from a few years back? For those of us who came to know and love Van the Man as the quintessential R&B-bred rock-and-roller, however, Down the Road is a sterling treat, his most accessible and consistent album in years.
The record is a sort of primer on American roots music, the raw gristle that Morrison first cut his teeth on as a lad while still begging for bootleg American blues and R&B albums from merchant seamen who smuggled them into the Belfast docks. Down the Road touches on virtually every genre that has informed Morrison's career, from doo wop to boogie woogie to country blues, and, of course, straight-up rock-and-roll. It's gritty, no-nonsense, back-to-basics stuff, and it's great. Morrison is still on that never-ending spiritual search, exploring the myriad ways that music can trigger the ultimate transcendental mindset. As an added treat, the album features a cover of "Georgia On My Mind," a classic staple of his live shows and almost a religious experience in itself. To me, it's astounding that this stout, middle-aged Irishman can open his mouth and still command such raw power. Sure to restore your faith in rock-and-roll. -- Lisa Lumb
If there is such a thing as a punk pedigree then surely Richard Hell has one of the purest ones extant. The history may be familiar but bears repeating here: a founding member of New York's first punk band, Television; a co-founder with Johnny Thunders of NYC's rockin' junkie band the Heartbreakers; the leader of Richard Hell & the Voidoids, which featured the guitar talent of Robert Quine; and the visual inspiration for the look that Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren codified into punk. (The spiked hair, ripped clothes, vacant stare, and sneering attitude all came from Hell and looked pretty good on Johnny Rotten.)
Perhaps the coolest thing about Hell (born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky) is that he got out of the music game in 1984, for the most part. Junk-sick and tired of watching others imitate his style, Hell released a retrospective set, R.I.P., on R.O.I.R. (the New York-based cassette-tape-only label; remember when indie-label cassettes were cool?) in late '84. After that, he returned to his first passion, writing. Basically, Time is a rerelease of R.I.P. with an added live disc and funny liner notes by Hell. It's thrown together and scrappy as hell (pardon the pun, or don't) but still sounds current and coherent.
Disc one is essentially R.I.P. with some extra tracks: a demo version of "Chinese Rocks" done by the Heartbreakers with Hell singing, a cover of Fats Domino's "I Live My Life" that sounds almost soulful, a manic version of the MC5's "I Can Only Give You Everything," and, from a 1984 New Orleans session, a version of Allen Toussaint's "Cruel Way To Go Down" (possibly Hell's best vocal performance to date). Disc two is live stuff from 1977 and '78 that confirms the Voidoids' reputation as a great live band. Recorded at London's Music Machine in '77 and at NYC's CBGB in '78, Hell and his band run through the songs on their debut LP Blank Generation but with a noisy abandon that their official release never displayed.
People still like to squawk that the dual-guitar interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd in Television has seldom been topped. Well, a brief listen to what Robert Quine and Ivan Julian got up to live with the Voidoids puts that overstated myth to rest. Verlaine may have chucked Hell out of Television for being an incompetent bass player (and a junkie, okay), but by doing so, he missed out on working with a collaborator who might have pulled the skull-faced one out of his solipsistic slide into the hall of memories. Context is everything, and Richard Hell got out when his was gone. -- Ross Johnson
This Is Where I Belong:
The Songs of Ray Davies & The Kinks
The Kinks were arguably the most British of all the major bands to emerge from the U.K. during the '60s -- more than the Beatles or the Who, definitely more than the Stones. Though their music revealed a true understanding of American rock-and-roll, and despite Ray Davies' identification with American redneck culture ("Muswell Hillbilly"), the band's songs were full of ironic Brit humor and odes to country villages overrun by American tourists. So it's a little surprising that the lineup for This Is Where I Belong is made up almost entirely of Yanks, some of whom actually have a cracking-good grasp of the band's quirks.
Steve Forbert and Fountains of Wayne have a blast with their romping versions of "Starstruck" and "Better Things," respectively, and Nashville art-rock combo Lambchop turn in a pervy take on "Art Lover." With scorched-earth guitar and bitter, ballsy vocals, Queens of the Stone Age perfectly capture all the male rancor of "Who'll Be the Next in Line?" but still manage to make it sound fun and danceable.
As with most tribute albums, however, half the songs are mere retreads of the originals: Fastball takes on "Till the End of the Day" and loses; tribute-album staple Matthew Sweet does a note-for-note take on "Big Sky." Worse than a retread, however, is blind misinterpretation, such as folk boy Josh Rouse's inappropriately sincere "A Well Respected Man," which neuters the sharp satire of the original. He just didn't get it.
Unlike their contemporaries, the Kinks never achieved lasting success overseas, most likely because they were so relentlessly British in sound and lyric. But This Is Where I Belong proves that their legacy lives on in America, in some form or another.
-- Stephen Deusner