It’s been a long haul for both the Band and Van Morrison; they have made their livings as rock & rollers for close to 20 years now. To judge solely by their new albums (Morrison’s is his first release since 1974) time is catching up with them, though whether they will again outdistance it remains an open question. Morrison made better music in ’64 and ’65 with Them, the first (and last?) great Irish rock & roll band; as the Hawks, the Band made better music in ’63, covering Bobby Bland and Muddy Waters tunes at the tail end of a Ronnie Hawkins session. Not that rock & roll has ever had anything to do with “progress.”
There is a lot of neo-R&B huffing and puffing on A Period of Transition (from what to what?), but Morrison’s performances rarely find a focus, almost never hit a groove. The grand gestures of Morrison’s style at its most rhetorical (“We are Them, take it or leave it,” he snarled during his 1964 sessions) fade in the air. The emotion that would justify those gestures, that would put a little terror into borrowed lines like “From a whisper to a scream,” is just out of reach: Transition is “Jackie Wilson Said” without the bite.
The key to the album’s sluggishness is the dullness of the horn charts. Van is the most inventive and lyrical arranger of horns rock & roll has known since the heyday of Stax-Volt, but “Flamingos Fly” is the only tune to which the horns add anything but sound; there, they add wit and a sense of fun. This is “Jackie Wilson Said” and something more; the album’s finest number by a long distance. The groove is irresistible, and it capsizes the rest of the album.
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Van Morrison once sang “Listen to the Lion” and made you feel as if you’d been cornered by one; he will do it again, but he doesn’t do it on Transition. This is by no means a bad album, but it lives up to its title all too well.
“I’m not really here, I just stick around for my friends,” Captain Beefheart used to say, and that sums up what I hear on Islands — which is not nothing. To be sure, there’s not a grand gesture on it. I can’t imagine this album meaning anything to someone who does not feel that his or her successes and failures are somehow reflected in the Band’s. If one does feel that, Islands is anything but hollow — it may sound like an unassuming last word, if hardly a last stand.
Since the members of the Band have not moved to Hawaii, it’s the album’s title, and the specter of the Band’s recent farewell concert, that implies that last word. Rick Danko and Levon Helm have signed solo recording contracts, and Helm is already working with Dr. John and Paul Butterfield; the thinness of the material on Islands suggests they may be keeping their best songs for their own albums, and the inclusion of a couple of oldies doesn’t make up the difference. “Ain’t That a Lotta Love,” a barband staple that a couple of years ago on a San Francisco stage Levon, Garth Hudson, Danko, Neil Young, Tim Drummond and Ben Keith stomped out as if they meant to stop the sun in its tracks, is on Islands the stiffest excuse for R&B I ever want to hear; too many of Robbie Robertson’s tunes offer cracker-barrel banalities without the music that could redeem them — or disguise them. “You don’t know what you want ’til you find out what you need” might be true and it might not be, but the point is it isn’t interesting.
Save for a couple of Richard Manuel’s vocals, I was ready to give up on this record. Then I began to hear it on the radio, and it sounded fresh. Now, while the first side of the LP passes pleasantly and tiresomely enough, side two seems like real people talking: that last word. “Islands,” the title instrumental, is slight and pretty — it disarms one’s desire for grand gestures, and it sets a tone. The tone is one of moderation; that is almost what the best songs here are about, in their music, in the feeling they get across. Manuel’s version of “Georgia on My Mind” recalls the heart he put into “Whispering Pines,” almost eight years ago. “Knockin’ Lost John,” a fine, unprofound ditty about the Great Depression of the Thirties, simply speaks to the present, and again, Manuel, without ever reaching for a note, gives the piece its authenticity; his voice carries the authority of an old man who can put up with anything but who’d just as soon not. “I went through it once,” he seems to be saying. “I’m damned if I’ll go through it again.”
And then there is “Livin’ in a Dream,” which closes out the set: a rewrite of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Well, it is the best song on Islands — a perfect cut. I hear it as a leave-taking, but then I have finales on my mind. The beat could not be less hurried, nor could the lines Levon sings, nor the way he sings them:
I’m gonna buy buy buy you
A sheepskin coat
I’m gonna string red rubies round your throat
Gently down the stream I will row your boat
‘Cause you know we’re only livin’ in a dream.
There’s no languor in the song, only pleasure; there are no promises that can’t be kept, and the promises Levon makes seem to have been kept when the tune ends. That spirit doesn’t sell records, but it may keep them in mind, when the time is right.
Still, in rock & roll a little modesty goes a long way. These are not the worst albums Van Morrison and the Band have made, but except for Morrison’s “Flamingos Fly” and the Band’s “Livin’ in a Dream” they make the best almost inexplicable. One cannot think of the power of “Chest Fever” and easily understand the triviality of “Ain’t That a Lotta Love”; one can’t quite pin down the fatal difference between the urgency of “St. Dominic’s Preview” or “You Don’t Pull No Punches but You Don’t Push the River” and the unconvincing strain of most of Transition. What you do, if you are committed to these artists, is wait.