Van Duets, Courtney Barnetts & Happyness Reigns

Plus, new releases from Bee Gees, Laura Marling and more

Van Morrison: Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue (Exile Productions/RCA) What’s especially relevant about this new and nifty Van Morrison album is his inevitable nod to the mechanics of the music biz: In this case it’s the “working the catalog” of the title, a highly accurate labeling for a man who has recorded dozens and dozens of albums since the ‘60s but still ends each new live album with some permutation of “Gloria,”“Moondance,” or some other ancient tune everybody knows. But there is so much unexplored good stuff he’s done, and it pops up here unpredictably on this collection of random duets with colorful pop figures and even more random tunes: I’m inclined to enjoy “Streets Of Arklow,” Morrison’s collab with Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, mainly because it’s from his second best-ever album Veedon Fleece, but the nature of what really works—be it a marvelous take on “Higher Than The World” with George Benson or the hilarious “Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby” featuring the pants-splitting vocalist himself in full evidence—makes this a highly solid good time for all. For long time fans, for those who treasure anything new by Bobby Womack or Mavis Staples, or for those who think a duet of “Real Real Gone” featuring both Morrison and Michael Bublé would verge on the slightly surrealistic, this is the album you’re looking for.

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Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop Music) Yes, I just came back from South By Southwest, and yes, I can recount for you the half-dozen or so absolutely essential artists who were highly in demand there—and who seemed to pop up nearly every night too, I must add—and yes, I would put Melbourne, Australia’s Courtney Barnett near the very top of the heap. Her previous EPs already caused some stir, but this new set, which showcase a highly adept, personality-filled musician with an equal knack for lyrics and rock riffing, is absolutely perfect. In 2015, Barnett’s got the excitement factor of a Patti Smith circa the mid-‘70s, with bonus technical prowess, and an upbeat, knowing personality projecting throughout “Debbie Downer” and “Pedestrian At Best” here that makes her the kind of chick you’d like to hang around with, if you’ll pardon the abysmal slang. She’s very good, and everyone is noticing at once.

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Happyness: Weird Little Birthday (Bar/None) Speaking of SXSW, it was there that a half-dozen really fascinating rock ’n’ roll bands snuck in among the 234,500 other ones, and I’d have to count England’s Happyness among that half-dozen. They are witty, they are melodic, they are ultra-clever, they have a tendency to be smarmy but in a good way, and sonically have been compared to Pavement and Yo La Tengo--but, as Brits, don’t sound like they are imitating British people being clever. Heck, it is confusing! But between “Baby, Jesus (Jelly Boy)” and “Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste The Same,” Happyness have displayed that knack for good, short, sharp pop, are nobody’s fools, and may be making even better albums in the near future. As first albums go: doozyesque!

[Related: Watch Happyness perform “Montreal Rock Band Somewhere” at SXSW]

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Bee Gees: 1974-1979 (Rhino) In these trying times of vanishing physical entities that were once vinyl LPs, then cassettes and CDs, then MP3s and now, inevitably, audio streams you will never hold in your hand and look at while listening to, you would be wise to pick up packages like this—a physical collection of fine CDs compiled and offered at an extremely reasonable price—while they are still being manufactured. Five CDs here by the Bee Gees which came during the most crucial time of their career: post the earliest pop hits of the late ‘60s’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You” and immediately leading into their super-commercial rebirth via 1975’s “Jive Talkin’.” On hand here are four very relevant members of the catalog—“Mr. Natural,” the last vestige of pre-rebirth Bee Gees, and then, one after the other, Main Course, Children Of The World, Spirits Having Flown, and the newly compiled and quite essential The Miami Years collection, which brings together the Bee Gees tracks from Saturday Night Fever and related rarities in one convenient boxed lot. This stuff is great, sounds better than ever now, and is a worthy reminder that the music that permeated the so-called “hollow” decade of the ‘70s had a warmth and timelessness about it that remains well into the 21st Century. 

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Laura Marling: Short Movie (Ribbon Music) British singer Marling continues to be an outstanding, sensitive, female British singer-songwriter with just the right credentials and discography—this being her fifth studio set—to cultivate a loyal following that can’t help but grow. Another attendee at last week’s SXSW fest—let’s face it, if you weren’t there, you were overtly dead or square—Marling merges musical subtlety with sophisticated, emotional lyrics, and on Short Movie, a more varied selection of musical styles than ever before. Maybe that’s because she’s been living in LA lately, and everyone’s nuts here. She is bright, sharp and smooth, and, most of the time, so is her music. When successful artists don’t try to repeat themselves, they’re always on to a good thing. Right now, Laura Marling is. Recommended.

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The Brecker Brothers: The Bottom Line Archive Series (Live 1976) (The Bottom Line Record Company) Depending on your age and your inclination, you will remember that 1) The Brecker Brothers were very popular players who rose to the commercial forefront via pop roots in early Blood Sweat & Tears and the immensely groovy Dreams, 2) Their impeccable playing tied to overwhelmingly funky rhythms made them one of the very most popular jazz-fusion types of late 20th Century, and 3) The Bottom Line was a well-known New York venue that regularly featured the most famous musicians you’ve ever heard of. So along with this completely fab and well-recorded set—which features the original combo (Breckers, David Sanborn, Don Grolnick, Steve Khan, Will Lee, Sammy Figueroa and Chris Parker) playing a variety of tracks from the band’s first two albums—this new label is offering equally fascinating sets by Willie Nile and Kenny Rankin and, down the road, lots, lots more. Good sound, good packaging, good liner notes = Good.

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James Bay: Chaos And The Calm (Republic) There is a tradition of sleek, sophisticated, sensitive singer-songwriters from Britain who seem to do especially well over there—winning all those Mercuryesque prizes, etc.—and, as a rule, some do well here and some don’t. James Blunt was like that. Remember him? This James, who’s quite good, has already released a number of EPs recently but, with this debut album, recorded in Nashville and oozing taste and musicianship, now officially bows—and if you like this sort of thing, you will probably really like this sort of thing, which is how major careers take off. He writes, he sings, he plays, and he’s got about a half-dozen songs here likely to grab a few people’s good parts really hard and squeeze. Which in this instance is not a bad thing.

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The Sonics: This Is The Sonics (Revox) How refreshing: A kick-ass garage rock album that flirts with being retro but actually can’t be, since its maker helped create the genre ages ago. Nearly 50 years after their last all-new collection, the Northwest pioneers return here with original members Gerry Roslie, Rob Lind & Larry Parypa, and with the superb selection of Jim Diamond as producer, burn through 12 tunes as rapid-fire and energized as any fan could hope for. You’ll hear “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover” rendered perfectly, and, if you’re like me, hear “The Hard Way” and take a half-minute to realize it’s a Kinks cover from 1976. And if that’s not garage rock, nothing is, which sort of seals the whole deal.

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