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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.… Read More
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.
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 Islandswhich 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 hollowit 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, Dank