Bob Marley and the Wailers
Natural Mystic -- The Legend Lives On
(Tuff Gong/Island)

Our thoughts might be many on the occasion of the release of Natural Mystic. We might marvel at the staying power of the Marley legacy. We might ponder the industry of those engaged in the mining of his musical catalogue. We even might revive our esteem for Marley's prodigious songwriting talents.

Then again, we gently might suggest to the sponsors of this project that the world, at this point, has had about enough of the Marley thing. Which is not to downgrade the quality of this particular plundering. The fifteen songs collected here are a pleasant enough mix of hits and misses ("Natural Mystic," "Trenchtown Rock," "One Drop"). Nice production. No discernible burping. Nothing, in other words, that Marley fans can't get from the inexhaustible supply of best-of compilations that already exists.

But there is this nasty matter of the marketing pitches. To wit: The slick little lyric booklet that comes with Natural Mystic includes an order form for "Bob Marley Official Merchandise." Ski hats festooned with the Jamaican flag ($15). A hockey shirt designed in Rastafarian colors for $49.95. Assorted tees featuring Bob's beatific mug. Jah say Visa and MasterCard accepted. AmEx too, mon.

By Steven Almond

Van Morrison
Days Like This
These lyrics are by Van Morrison:
I'm a songwriter and I know just where I stand
I'm a songwriter, pen and paper in my hand
Get the words on the page
Please don't call me a sage
I'm a songwriter.
These are, too:
Call them pagan streams and it spins and turns
In a factory in a street called Bread in East Belfast
Where Georgie knows best
What it's like to be Daniel in the lion's den
Got so many friends only most of the time.

The first are from a little number called "Songwriter," the second from a piece called "Ancient Highway." Both are on Van's new album, and in a way they typify the record: One's great; the other, were it written by your five-year-old, would cause you to say, as lovingly as you could bring yourself to, "Perhaps you ought to consider taking up welding as a profession."

It's not just the lyrics that give me pause. Days is plagued with something its press materials refer to as "elegant pop-jazz," which is, in reality, chirpy vibraphone and sax more irritating than a fart in an elevator. Additionally, someone with the improbable name of Foggy Lyttle has contributed an excess of faux-jazzy electric guitar garbage that would make anyone save the most die-hard George Benson fan barf.

Which isn't to imply that the album is all bad. "In the Afternoon" is a lovely, moody tune whose horn arrangement doesn't spew Muzak all over the vocals and whose lyrics reflect Van at his most seductive (considering he's now 50 and looks like a troll). "Raincheck," too, makes the grade, even in spite of the lounge-lizard lead guitar. And "Ancient Highway" more than lives up to the hype. It does evoke Astral Weeks, it really does.

Still, too much of Days Like This is a pale caricature of Van gone by. At best it harks back to material on Wavelength that you could have done without ("No Religion," "Underlying Depression," and "Melancholia"). There's a pair of old standards redone to no stunning effect (featuring duets with Van's daughter, Shana, and piano work by former Them member Phil Coulter). And then we have the downright lousy: "Perfect Fit," "Russian Roulette," and, of course, the aforementioned and incomparably puerile "Songwriter."

Van has long been known for putting out uneven albums. And I'm a patient fellow who owns a CD player that's programmable. Yours had better be, too.

By Tom Finkel

Dave Hole
Steel on Steel
Sue Foley
Big City Blues

New releases from Australian blues-rock slide guitarist Dave Hole and Austin guitar-slinger Sue Foley point up the struggle for the soul of today's blues artists. Hole's third album for Alligator, Steel on Steel, mixes stunning slide blues, such as the slow and powerful "Counting My Regrets" and the Elmore James-ish love letter to the genre "Take Me to Chicago," with more mundane sing-along-with-the-chorus rock fare. And yet his over-the-top (literally) slide technique and emotional vocal delivery throw sparks even on the weaker tunes. Hearing his lovely slide intro and outro on the opening song, and incisive playing on "Counting My Regrets," listeners are given a taste of the brilliant blues record Hole is capable of producing.

The third effort for Foley, as well, Big City Blues, is the young Canadian-gone-Texas guitarist's most confident outing. Foley's voice, never her strongest attribute, has improved, and she seems to know it, even starting off her new disc with just piano accompaniment on the title cut (an authentic-sounding barrelhouse piece, it's actually an original). But plenty of guitar work follows: A reworking of Howlin' Wolf's "Howlin' for My Darlin'" swaps genders but retains Wolf's menacing sexuality, while a cover of Buddy Guy's version of "Money (That's What I Want)" in the form of "One Hundred Dollar Bill" rumbles along with solid rhythm support.

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