Album Reviews: Van Morrison - Versatile, plus Mark Olson, Michael Johnathon, Ethiopian & His All-Stars, and More

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Versatile—the 38th studio album from Van Morrison, which comes only three months after his last release—finds him joining artists like Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart in mining the Great American Songbook. There are two tracks here from George and Ira Gershwin (“A Foggy Day,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) and one from Cole Porter (the great “I Get a Kick Out of You”). Other jazz and blues vocal standards on the 16-track program include “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Unchained Melody,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “Let’s Get Lost.” Also here are a half dozen Morrison originals, most of which seem to be cut from the same mold as the covers. (A press release proclaims these originals to be “new Van compositions,” but he first recorded at least three of them years ago.)

This is not, of course, Morrison’s first foray into this sort of territory. Even before he became a solo artist, he was recording covers of blues classics like “I Got a Woman” and “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” with his Irish group Them. In later years, he has interpreted such standards as “Georgia on My Mind,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and “It’s All in the Game.”

Like such recordings, the best of the ones on the self-produced Versatile find Morrison reinventing the material. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” for example, eschews Tony Bennett’s approach for an earthier, jazzier reading. And “Unchained Melody,” which is best known from the Righteous Brothers’ 1965 hit version, surfaces here as a brooding slow blues; you don’t get the soaring vocal work of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, but you can better sense the longing and loneliness that the lyric addresses. Like the rest of Versatile, these songs benefit from fine instrumentation, including Morrison’s own alto sax on half the tracks and flautist Sir James Galway on “Affirmation,” a moody, mostly instrumental album highlight.

Such stellar performances prove once again that Morrison is what the album title proclaims—and also that he’s one of the most distinctive vocalists of our time. That said, he is most captivating when he steps away from tradition rather than embraces it—when he straddles musical boundaries and creates something entirely new, as he did most famously on 1967’s Astral Weeks and also on such later standouts as No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. He doesn’t do that here, but he does do more than enough to keep me listening.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Mark Olson, Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun. If you lost track of Mark Olson after he left the Jayhawks, you’re missing a lot of music that is as good as or better than any that that fine group produced. A good place to start catching up is the exquisite new Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun, Olson’s first album in three years, which he recorded in collaboration with his wife Ingunn Ringvold. She provides harmony vocals and gorgeous string arrangements and plays Mellotron, among other instruments; Olson adds guitar and dulcimer, and there’s also a percussionist and a bassist. As for the lyrics, they’re as cryptic as the album’s title. “Hello to the four o’clock family / Hello to the one that lives there,” goes a typical verse. “…Burgundy sun shower, where is life / Death Valley soda pop cool down dream.” Huh? Fortunately, the music—which hovers somewhere between alt-country and 60s folk/rock psychedelia—is a whole lot more accessible.

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Michael Johnathon, Pirate. Singer/songwriter Michael Johnathon—who sounds uncannily like Don McLean—calls Pirate an album about majestic failure…a song cycle of social and political love poems…a musical missive about the past and everything we should have learned.” It’s an impressive statement (albeit a short one at eight tracks and 33 minutes). Backed by a full band that features everything from accordion to cello to French horns, Johnathon delivers such well-crafted originals as “Assassins in the Kingdom,” which he wrote in the wake of 9/11; “Flyin’,” a relatively lighthearted number about living beyond your means; and the title cut, a majestic and poetic ballad. There’s also a strong cover of Bob Dylan’s unfortunately still timely “Masters of War.”

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Ethiopian & His All Stars, The Return of Jack Sparrow. Ethiopian is a stage name for reggae singer Leonard Dillon, who was widely known as Sparrow. (I’m reminded of the Beatles’ “Rocky Racoon” line about how “her name was Magill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.”) Dillon, who died in 2011, was a first-rate singer and songwriter who incorporated ska and rocksteady influences and fashioned himself after the Wailers, with whom he sometimes recorded. This 20-track all-originals collection features a fine backup quartet plus a lively horn section (alto sax, trumpet, and trombone) and famed percussionist Sly Dunbar. Recorded in the late 1980s, the album has not previously been released, which seems hard to believe, given its quality.

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Various Artists, International Blues Challenge #33. Billed as the world’s largest gathering of blues musicians, the International Blues Challenge is an annual competition sponsored by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. This album collects performances from 2017’s solo/duo and band division finalists. Like many compilation albums, this one has its ups and downs, but the former easily outnumber the latter. Among them: “Till I Get to Memphis,” a smoky, slide-guitar-enhanced traditional blues by Randy McQuay; pianist Al Hill’s effusive “Don’t Dig Today”; and Ruth Wyand & the Tribe’s “I Don’t Have Proof,” a soulful comment on infidelity. Conclusion: the blues are alive and well.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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