Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Collecting the Collections

Van Morrison - Still on Top: The Greatest Hits (Hip-O, 2007)

Making a one disc collection of an eclectic and album-oriented musician like Van Morrison is a tough proposition, and this disc wisely tries to focus on Morrison's chart or radio hits rather than a full assessment of his lengthy career. It's a fairly diverse collection going from his early grungy garage rock with Them on "Gloria" and "Here Comes the Night" through some of his sunnier 70's hits like "Moondance" and "Domino" and finally collection some of his more maudlin 80's tunes like the string drenched "Have I Told You Lately", "Someone Like You" and the deeply spiritual "In the Garden." So much of the music on this disc is very good that it's hard to really complain, the Morrison neophyte or person looking for a quick overview (whom this collection is really aimed for) will no doubt be quite satisfied. But as a long time fan, I find the absence of any tracks from the seminal Astral Weeks LP to be very disappointing, and to have such a dynamic live performer like Morrison's only concert performance included to be the odd "Dweller on the Threshold" from a half forgotten 80's LP is a strange choice to say the least. Still at the end of the collection, the strength of his voice and vision for a fusion of jazz blues and R&B comes through quite well. At his best, his music is well neigh indestructible regardless of how it is packaged.

Tom Waits - Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years (Island, 1998)

During the beginning of his career, Waits made a somewhat dubious name for himself as a drunken cabaret singer. Sobering up in the 1980's and finding a collaborator in his wife and muse Kathleen Brennan, Waits truly came into his own. During his lengthy run for the eclectic Island label, Waits fascinating songwriting (focusing on the obscure characters and lovable cranks of the world) met some of the most innovative music of his career with the likes of Marc Ribot on guitar and other very talented side-people for a very successful series of albums. Much like Morrison, Waits is an album-oriented artist, and this sampler is best for the lucky person who has grown curious about his music. If he's not scared away by the sheer originality of the terrifying "The Earth Died Screaming" or the unsettling "16 Shells Form a Thirty Ought Six" then the mix of gravelly vocals and percussive music will be deeply enjoyed. It's not all doom and gloom though, the sentimental side of Waits's music is displayed with "Downtown Train" and "Jonesburg, Illinois." So, this is a good one disc collection of a pivotal period in the development of Tom Waits's unique and original music. One way or another, this music deserves to be heard.

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