Van Morrison, Born to Sing: No Plan B. This is Van Morrison's 35th solo album in 45 years, and to say his voice has kept all the qualities of soulful magic feels like an understatement. Morrison is one of the prime authors of rock music as a belief system. Busting out of Ireland in the mid-'60s, Morrison's band Them approached the so-called British Invasion with a hard-edged cross of street smarts and ethereal longing on songs like "Mystic Eyes," "Here Comes the Night" and, yes, "Gloria." From the start Them were trying to break free, with an Irish potato chip on their shoulder and a sweet snarl in their voice.
All these years later and Van Morrison still sounds like he's trying to break free, whether it's from the greed of big business or just the pesky existence of other humans. Even if he shouldn't be allowed to use words in his lyrics like "phony pseudo jazz," "capitalist system," "global elite," "so much propaganda" or some of the other phrases, the singer is able to extend his Celtic heart to the slipstream of eternal love enough to keep true believers satisfied. His jazzier edge is on full view here, which is a good thing though it often sounds like he's one temper tantrum away from losing the thread. That's always been the Van the Man tightrope: one memorable concert had him laying on top of a grand piano on his back deriding the audience for shouting the word "boogie." Whoops.
The key to Van Morrison's greatness is how he seems to be searching for more, a place above the earthly concerns that light his short fuse. His unending bend in that quest separates him from the rest, just as it does on the first song here, "Open the Door (To Your Heart)." It's in the grand tradition of Morrison classics like "Come Running," "Domino," "Wild Night" and "Kingdom Hall." The tension and momentum build through the song and let the singer turn deep within. By the end, everyone is walking in the light.
Leela James, Loving You More...In the Spirit of Etta James. No rhythm and blues singer deserves a tribute more than Etta James. She started recording as a young teenager, and for the next 60 years never stopped. The challenges in her way, many of her own making, are legendary but let it be said she never allowed them to make her quit. She was one of the first artists on Chess Records to take that label beyond the blues and in the mid-'60s James made a series of sessions in Muscle Shoals that kicked off modern soul music.
Leela James, bless her heart, takes on the big spirit of Etta James and does her very best to bring back to earth that emotional world. As grand an idea as this is, a big tell in the album credits is the first musician credit is given to the two programmers, who also happen to have produced the album. The sound of processed drums that seeps so deep into the tracks is a direct affront to what these songs are all about. It's like nobody noticed just how far afield the canned snare takes the sessions. Maybe they were trying for a more modern take on "I'd Rather Go Blind," "At Last" and "Sunday Kind of Love," but something definitely gets lost in the translation. Not even as powerful a song as Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby" (how's that for descriptive kick?) gets through unscathed.
Here's a thought: reissue the album with a "deprogrammed" sticker and let the real drums take their rightful place in the mix. Leela James's heart and soul is all there, and should be allowed to shine. She sings from the same place Etta James went every night of her life, and for that the world needs to hear what that feels like. This is music that doesn't come around very often, and deserves to be felt in all its glory.
Arizona Dranes, He is My Story. And what a story it is. Between 1926 and 1928, Arizona Dranes recorded 16 burning vinyl slabs of spiritual bliss, turning the most heathen into an audience who couldn't take their eyes off the sparrow. She did it with a mesmerizing voice and hypnotic piano, a blind woman who was almost wholly self-taught against all odds to move up a little higher. As a child she had a choice in the school for the blind to study music or learn how to make brooms. Arizona Dranes chose the road to freedom.
Her recordings for Okeh Records became legendary among collectors of gospel music, and Tompkins Square's collection is a stunning set that transcends most of this year's reissues. The music itself is breathtaking, recorded under minimal conditions but always able to transcend the physical plane. Dranes really was in a class by herself, practically inventing a piano style for spirituals that is still being played today. Her voice goes right for the Holy Ghost, walking hand in hand with a power higher than all others. Then there is Michael Corcoran's essay. Easily one of the best music writers in America, Corcoran has been waiting for a story like this his whole career, and tells Drane's tale with a moving touch, always factoring in the mystery at the center of this amazing woman.
There have been only a few artists who stood at the start of a brave new world like this, someone who seized the day and never looked the other way. Arizona Dranes put God and secular piano together in a righteous union that sparked an inner revolution. Along with Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey they opened up church people to music like this for the very first time. Her life was riddled with hardship and dead end roads, but through the beauty of a devoted few these 16 songs now get to live again. The last song, "Sweet Heaven is My Home" pretty much says it all. For that we should thank all our lucky stars.