Clearly, Morrison is aware that‘s what he’s doing. The cover shows the window of a music store: “Memorabilia & Records” — ha-ha. The song stylings and smooth R&B horn charts trace 1970 in the air like skywriting. He even begins by singing about “trying to find my way back home.”
He‘s just as aware how fresh Down the Road will sound right now. In “Whatever Happened to PJ Proby?,” riding a rhythm that conjures “Hit the Road, Jack,” he’s blunt: “There‘s nothing to relate to anymoreUnless you want to be mediocre” — somehow avoiding arrogance while suggesting he knows damn well he has permitted not one unexceptional moment on the whole record. “Please can you cut me some slack?” he deadpans. Anything you say, Mr. Morrison.
The voice is at its toppermost — full, true and snapping with life. On the folk waltz “Steal My Heart Away,” Morrison will break your heart, his intimate romantic confidences touched with myriad inflections yet perfectly natural. When he digs into a Dylanized blues like “Talk Is Cheap” or an R&B stroller like “Choppin’ Wood,” he‘s a stabbing rhythm instrument. If you want him to make you weep tears of joy with soul-wringing melismatic virtuosity, he’s right there with “Georgia on My Mind.” (And he never makes you long for Ray Charles.)
In some ways, Morrison even improves on Moondance. He‘s distilled a tour-blended relationship with guitarist Ned Edwards and bassist Pete Hurley, Welshmen he stole from Jerry Lee’s little sister Linda Gail Lewis; pub-rock drummer Bobby Irwin (Nick Lowe, John Hiatt) has exactly the right feel for this music; Martin Winning, Lee Goodall and Matt Holland mesh in ways his early horn sections never quite did, and their solos breathe with a nuanced maturity that matches Morrison‘s own.
The studio recording even glows. If “Produced by Van Morrison” means everything it implies, the man deserves maximum credit. Enough to hold him for another 30 years of fans whining about his interpretations of William Blake or duets with Georgie Fame.
Maybe he should produce Jimmy Scott. It’s hard to fathom the praise that‘s sometimes been heaped on that immortal ballad interpreter’s recordings since he was dropped by Warner Bros. after 1996‘s Heaven, except that people may be starting to feel they can no longer afford to ignore him. (He’s 76.)
Unlike Morrison, Scott is possibly the sweetest person ever to hold a microphone, notoriously amenable to whatever suggestions producers might offer. And considering the decades of neglect prior to his early-‘90s rediscovery, that attitude is understandable. Waxing for Warner, Scott was generally well-served, whether the setting was old-line (All the Way, with producer Tommy LiPuma and arranger Johnny Mandel), moderne (Dream, with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake) or postmodern (Cassandra Wilson producer Craig Street’s high-concept Heaven).
The common thread is aural space: Scott needs it, and he usually got it from Warner. He sings mostly standards, pulling back from the beat and into a rarefied zone where his fragile wail can draw devastating meaning from words that have lost theirs through overfamiliarity.
But for the last few years at Milestone, Scott has been working with producer Todd Barkan and a crew who don‘t all seem to know he’s a genius. This is most manifest on last year‘s Over the Rainbow. Cocktail vibes and perky harmonica slaughter Scott’s moods; you can half imagine the musicians wondering why he doesn‘t throw in a few scooby-doos. And on the challenging “Strange Fruit,” we hear potentially pregnant voids filled with little guitar twees and bippity-dees that cry out for wire cutters, while portentous piano and cymbal noises hurl you to the mat with the conclusion that, yes, lynching must be kind of a bummer.
Things get better on this year’s But Beautiful, largely because most arrangements have been entrusted to pianist Renee Rosnes, whose spare chording is unobtrusive, though her obbligato formulas tend to be bricklike. Still, the spiritual “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” collapses in a mess of piano tinkles and vrooming bass, and Scott‘s hollow despair on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” drowns in a Holiday Inn pool of tasty samba licks.
Likewise, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” that classic half-smiling suicide note, gets an incomprehensible giddyup hotcha treatment. A cynic might guess that Scott selected the tune just so he could sing, “No one here can love and understand me.” But he‘s not that kind of guy.