Dec 012023

Blimey, but hasn’t George Ivan been busy. He’s churned out four albums in the past three years; Accentuate the Positive is the second one this year to catch our eye. If Moving On Skiffle was his skiffle album, Accentate the Positive is Van Morrison’s homage to rock and roll, or the roots thereof. A wedge of tunes largely from the late ’40s into ’60s, this is the the sort of stuff that must have caught his ear as he was starting off himself, as a fresh faced r’n’b shouter from Belfast. And once more, by making this a parade of idiosyncratically offered cover versions, he avoids the problem that his recent streak of original material had in spades, that of his bluntly critical lyrical bombast. Which I, for one, salute, as this is mostly a joyous set of songs.

The album opens with a belter, an extraordinarily upbeat version of “You Are My Sunshine.” Morrison sounds positively exuberant, yelping the lyric in a style quite unbefitting his near four score years. In fact, his vocals here are as strong as I have ever heard, if, admittedly, sticking within the limited framework he has left to him, which is still more than most. With much the same band as the skiffle album, they make for a tight ensemble, and, together, they certainly make the sun shine this damp winter day. With the second song being an extraordinary Vanterpretation of the Everlys, rendering “When Will I Be Loved” to near doo-wop, full of bouncy street corner vibe and a near-blue backbeat. The logical reverse progression is jumping jive, “Two Hound Dogs” providing just the rooty-toot ordered, with the backing callout vocals an essential part of it, as is the cheese cutter sax from the Man himself. Dave Hurley’s walking bass is perfect.

After “Flip Flop Fly” brings more of the same, it’s on to “I Want A Roof Over My Head,” a 1940s organ-led chorale. The keys of Richard Dunn are a delight, the guitar of David Keary an understated pleasure. Van’s sax pairs with Crawford Bell’s trumpet, and all is well.

The next track had me initially convinced it was wartime favorite, “When The Red Red Robin Comes Bobbin’ Along.” But it isn’t, being another bluebeat slanted song, “Problems.” But just try telling the earworm thus deposited. “Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” is a bit hokey, to be fair, a cheesy litany about disliking the genre, which, were it actually R’n’R might convince you to do the same. Luckily “The Shape I’m In” (not that one) is, and except for the (by now annoying) backing vocals, it’s that much away from being a belter. The title track is another song with a broad brush of West Indian grooves to it. And, if I am to do as instructed, I will say how well arranged it is, Stuart McIlroy’s piano especially. But, in truth, it is all getting a bit samey, swift jaunts that entertain superficially and separately, but that eventually congeal en masse.

“Lonesome Train” tries to store some momentum, largely with a track-rattling bass line, here from Laurence Cottle. There’s a second voice here, all fears confirmed by the reveal that it is Chris Farlowe, who seems unable to have been able to sing since the 1960s. Harsh? My bad. Remarkably, it also contains Jeff Beck on guitar, not that you’d know it, which seems a hell of a waste and, now, unreplicable. “A Shot Of Rhythm Of Blues” retreats further to the anodyne recreation of songs that, however great they are for the hearing, could do with a bit more soul. I was therefore all of a tenterhook for “Shaking All Over,” a song much covered and often well; here it is actually OK, even if Morrison is uncharacteristically straining at the higher notes. All the requisite bits are here, but it isn’t the high point expected. Great guitar and great (tenor) sax from Keary and Chris White.

Chuck Berry (at last) rears his head for “Bye Bye Johnny,” which I’m relieved to say is terrific, bringing back all the memories of when Steve Gibbons would routinely finish his shows with the same song. And possibly still does. It sounds the closest to breaking a sweat the band have got, reviving some faith in the project; in purpose rather than just principle. “Red Sails In The Sunset” brings a hint of country to the show, and, again, it sounds as if the Berry-induced kick in the pants still has legs, Morrison’s voice as impassioned as anywhere here. Three in a row with a clipped “Sea Of Heartbreak,” some vintage r’n’b, and this time the backing vocalists do just fine, coming over like the Drifters.

“Blueberry Hill” should be a cert. Oddly, the open goal is missed, it turning into a turgid call and repeat vocal plod. “Bonaparte’s Repeat” has more ba-bas than the Beach Boys and gives this lesser-known number a boost, as does McIlroy’s piano. Returning to certs, I am still musing on “Lucille,” uncertain if it is another “Blueberry Hill” or a “Bye Bye Johnny.” The second verse entry of a very gruff indeed Taj Mahal ought to provide kudos, but what it does is more give relief it isn’t Farlowe against. OK, I guess I am being uncharitable; it’s fine, but coulda, shoulda, yadda yadda. Which leaves only “Shake Rattle And Roll,” which gets a rolling lilt that makes for an enjoyable end. Mahal’s back, but better this time, further enjoyment given by Morrison inserting some wonderfully bizarre vocal tics, the lullabullabulla noise people make to babies. The two old troupers trade vocals with some “ad libbed” encouragements that actually suggest they are having as much fun as they want you to believe.

So maybe Accentuate the Positive isn’t a perfect album and if not up to the caliber of the skiffle album, well, that’s understandable, lightning striking twice etc. It is certainly a lot more uplifting than his own material has been for some time, even with the slightly soggy middle, about which the stronger tracks are bookended. One wonders what next for the churlish Mr. M. More of his own or what? A blues album? A country one, to go along with 2006’s Pay The Devil? Some croony jazz? We shall just have to see.

Accentuate The Positive tracklisting:

1. You Are My Sunshine (The Pine Ridge Boys cover)

2. When Will I Be Loved (The Everly Brothers cover)

3. Two Hound Dogs (Bill Haley & His Comets cover)

4. Flip, Flop and Fly (Joe Turner & His Blues Kings cover)

5. I Want a Roof Over My Head (Steve Gibson & the Redcaps cover)

6. Problems (Everly Brothers cover)

7. Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes (Chuck Willis cover)

8. The Shape I’m In (Kenny Lee Martin cover)

9. Accentuate The Positive (Sam Cooke cover)

10. Lonesome Train (Johnny Burnette & the Rock’n’Roll Trio cover)

11. A Shot of Rhythm and Blues (Arthur Alexander cover)

12. Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates cover)

13. Bye, Bye Johnny (Chuck Berry cover)

14. Red Sails in the Sunset (Lew Stone & His Band)

15. Sea of Heartbreak (Don Gibson cover)

16. Blueberry Hill (Swing & Sway With Sammy Kaye cover)

17. Bonaparte’s Retreat (Traditional cover)

18. Lucille (Little Richard cover)

19. Shake, Rattle and Roll (Joe Turner & His Blues Kings cover)

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  One Response to “Review: Van Morrison’s ‘Accentuate The Positive’”

Comments (1)
  1. Hilarious review … you seem to be skiffling between charitability and dropping the hammer at every turn.

    Which unfortunately befits many latter-day Van Morrison albums. I actually loved his recent skiffle album and all-skiffle shows – it all worked way better than it should have. But I’ve been looking sideways at this project – despite Van being my #2 artist after Dylan.

    Part of it is the horrible “is it clip art or is it AI” cover art. And the album title seems like a transparent effort to bring those of us who are vaccinated back on board; BUT, hey, at least it’s not “Accentuate How I Hate Da Gubmint!”

    (See now I’m skifflin’ between praise and damnation too)

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