Van Morrison

Born to Sing: No Plan B

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Born to Sing: No Plan B is Van Morrison's first studio offering in four years and his second for Blue Note. It is the longest span of studio silence in his career. Uncharacteristically, he recorded the set in his hometown of Belfast with a crack sextet that includes a three-piece horn section with an alto saxophone. Trombonist Alistair White also features prominently; his warm timbres, muted colors, and delightful solos are centerpieces in many songs. Born to Sing: No Plan B is more jazz-centric, but not at the expense of his trademark Celtic swing, blues, and soul. Morrison's singing is unfettered, relaxed, and unguarded. His charts are simultaneously more sophisticated and organic. "Open the Door (To Your Heart)" opens with a souled-out guitar atop a laid-back B-3 and Memphis-styled bassline. The horns groove underneath Morrison's vocal, which is underscored by piano vamps. Lyrically, he states one of the album's primary themes: the real cost of materialism and greed. The soul-drenched "End of the Rainbow" and the old-school R&B set closer, "Educating Archie," also address the theme directly and tastefully. But it's "If in Money We Trust" -- the set's finest moment -- where he gets down inside it and lays out his truth with some of the finest low-end singing of his career in a brooding jazz-blues with meaty piano, canny interwoven dialogue between the horns, and taut bass and hand percussion that bubble in the pocket. That theme aside, this isn't a political record; it's not preachy, angry, or even disillusioned. It's Morrison merely laying down his own analytic reportage from the headlines. The title cut is a strolling R&B arrangement that certainly evokes those he heard from bar bands as a kid in Belfast. In it one can hear everyone from Fats Domino to Belfast's Bluebeats Show Band in the arrangement -- check the muted trombone break answered by clarinet. The breezy, ironic "Goin Down to Monte Carlo" bemusedly contains John Paul Sartre's infamous "Hell is other people." The tune suggests that the most vapid place on earth is perhaps the best place to "get some peace." It contains an upright bass solo, a gorgeous muted trumpet break, and fine, laid-back scat singing from Morrison. Likewise, "Close Enough for Jazz" (an older instrumental with lyrics) is a perfect meld of swinging R&B and post-swing jazz. "Mystic from the East" and "Retreat and View" are spiritual in nature; they connect directly to a constant theme in Morrison's oeuvre. The darker side of spirituality is evoked in "Pagan Heart," with Morrison paying tribute to John Lee Hooker via snarling electric guitar playing, as well as Robert Johnson in the lyric. Morrison sounds fully engaged, revitalized, even ambitious. On Born to Sing: No Plan B he's compiled the various elements of his musical oeuvre and assembled them into a seamless, glorious whole.

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