Van Morrison
Back on Top

Van Morrison can only blame himself for the daunting expectations that greet his every move. How else to approach a man who penned the all-time garage classic "Gloria," wrote one of the most distinctively soulful singles of the '60s, "Brown Eyed Girl," then created the stunningly individualistic, genre-collapsing album Astral Weeks, all before he turned 24 years old? Weeks's followup, Moondance, in some ways bested its predecessor by uniting Morrison's affections for art and pop; since then he's released a record per year on average, putting together a massive discography that's been neither embarrassing nor on par with the transformative effects of those first records. Unfortunately Back on Top finds Morrison indulging his least revelatory taste: straight blues. The album opens with "Goin' Down Geneva," an attempt to replicate New Orleans-style blues-jumping tempos, loose and trebly electric guitar, and pounding piano rags. It's indicative of the record's paradox: Much of it sounds like real juke-joint blues accompanied by an extremely accomplished session band and documented in an undistinctive studio environment. While Morrison's deeply emotive vocals prevent the final product from becoming terminally stiff, the boogie remains relatively tame. The keyboard tinkle sounds more like the work of Bruce Hornsby (circa the Range) than that of a real bluesman; Morrison's voice is too often matched with a weak back-up singer high in the mix; and the rhythmic pulse too often flows mindlessly, bopping along like weak-willed AAA radio pop. In short Top finds Morrison spending too much time immersed in roots that aren't really his. Although the emphasis on the blues isn't really new for him (witness 1977's middling Dr. John-produced A Period of Transition and Morrison's recent collaborations with John Lee Hooker), such dabblings don't approach his skill with traditional Celtic moves. When he emphasized a bucolic spirituality on his early solo albums, and again with a string of similarly themed records in the mid- to late '80s, Morrison proved he could work a Renaissance Fair vibe like no one else. And Morrison is best on Back on Top when he can see the forest for the swamp. "When the Leaves Come Falling Down," for example, has a trippy elegance that his attempts at blues don't even approach. "Always driving, always climbing well beyond my will/Same old sensation, isolation at the top of the bill/Always seemin' like I'm moving but I'm really going slow/You'll find out when you get to the top that there's no where to go," he sings on the title track. Now that's a dose of the blues.

-- Alec Hanley Bemis

Various Artists
Tuva, Among the Spirits
(Smithsonian Folkways)

First it was Bulgarian women's choirs. Then it was yodeling pygmies. Lately it's the eerie whistle of Tuvan throat singers that techno-oriented ethnic plunderers sample and mate with enervating dance grooves on worldbeat fusion CDs. It's therefore pleasant to find a Tuvan release that takes a leap backward not only from electronic rhythms, but also from the strict song format of other compilations from the region.

Tuva, Among the Spirits is less concerned with spotlighting the remarkable vocal styles of the Siberian steppe than it is with mining the context from which they emerged. Alongside examples of unpronounceable throat singing genres such as xoomei and borbangnadyr, Spirits contains vivid, near three-dimensional recordings of songbirds, burbling streams, chattering insects, domestic animals, and stampeding wild horses, the latter captured on tape with some peril to the recordist. Flowing through these soundscapes are vocal and instrumental responses that evoke or mimic aspects of the environment. Because the Tuvans and their neighbors the Sakhans are animists, and their religion is rooted in their lives as herder-hunters, their art imitates life with an intimacy rarely found in recorded music.

Members of the Tuvan ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu take a break from their more structured repertoire to perform impromptu duets with anaerobic entities: a rock-strewn stream ("Borbangnadyr with Stream Water"), echoing riverbank cliffs ("Kyzyl Taiga"), and the wind on a grassy hilltop ("Harmonics in the Wind"). They toss off a bit of xoomei while bouncing on the back of a trotting horse and pay tribute to their beloved equines with the one-string igil fiddle on another track. Joining Huun-Huur-Tu are Sakhan Yakut musicians from the Yakutsk-based folk ensemble Tos-Khol, who unleash a powerful elemental piece with jaw harp, fiddle, frame drum, and quavering chanted vocals on "The Legacy of Ancestors."

The big plus of this release is its homogeneity. One cut segues into another, inviting the entire disc to be partaken of in a leisurely session rather than laser dropping this cut or that one. Although this emphasis on context is far more illuminating than any mere collection of songs, it does limit the utility of the disc -- unless you're not bothered by countless human imitations of animal voices outside a musical setting. For background listening, Tuvan folk-fests, or techno-Tuvans, look elsewhere. But for an aural documentary, Spirit is the place.

-- Bob Tarte

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Alec Hanley Bemis
Bob Tarte