VAN MORRISON'S HYMNAL
12:00 AM, Jun 17, 1996 • By MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE
Morrison's voice, a rough, gravelly growl with little range, is a problematic instrument; like Bob Dylan, he often has trouble filling the clever melodies he devises. (This is probably why he is so fond of spoken- word meditations.) However, on How Long, like his other albums, Morrison lets exceptional musicianship carry the songs. Furthermore, in the swing era, many blues singers were called "shouters," and while range was important, perfect pitch often lost out to depth of feeling. Morrison's deep growl sounds appropriately weathered in the rolling cover of Louis Jordan's "Early in the Morning" and the jump of Cannonball Adderley's "Sack o' Woe." He even manages to sound sultry covering his own "Moondance."
On the ballads, Morrison is somewhat weaker. "Who Can I Turn To?" sounds like karaoke, and "That's Life" is death. Morrison would have done well to hand these more delicate numbers over to another singer, as he did with several songs on A Night in San Francisco. However, his deliberate drawl on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Blues in the Night" reveals the gorgeous hook of the song where the greats who have covered it (Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Turner) have often failed, and "Centerpiece" has enough bounce to carry it into the top 10.
That's not going to happen. Morrison hasn't been within sight of the charts since Rod Stewart scored with a cover of his drippy "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" a few years ago. Morrison seems to have banished himself from the pop world, and with How Long doesn't give any sign of making a compromise. Wise move. He's too good for MTV, where one finds musicians who, to quote the Mose Allison song Morrison covers on How Long, have minds on vacation and mouths working overtime.
By Mark Gauvreau Judge