I'm currently on the road, working, with not much time for focused writing. Catching up with new releases from some of the old (not always) faithfuls and pondering fuller reviews...
I've already made some sceptical comments about Bob Dylan's Tempest, but I haven't yet given it the concentrated attention it deserves. The problem is that, unlike the curate's egg, it is genuinely good in parts. But the bad bits - instances of plonking rhymes, clumsy lyrics, unengaged vocals which ignore meaning, limited and repetitive melodies, some actively unpleasant sentiments: overall, the screaming need for a dispassionate editor... - keep getting in the way when I try to experience the album as a whole and appreciate the good bits. And there certainly are good bits, with some striking lines, delivered on occasion with both power and guile, where he makes the most of what remains of his voice. The band are strong, tight and utterly dependable.
Van Morrison's Born To Sing: No Plan B is a different sort of mixture. The music is jazz-based, there's fire in the singer's belly and grit in his vocals. The persona Van presents is not very attractive - grumpy, bordering on misanthropic - but that will hardly surprise long term fans. It is both interesting and impressive and deserves closer attention. I'm not being sucked in immediately, though: there is, again, some off-putting clumsiness in the lyrics (such as the repeated line about 'Going down to Monte Carlo, about 25k from Nice' - which one critic has nicely compared to a satnav message - and which is far too obviously there only to set up an easier set of rhymes with 'Nice' than 'Monte Carlo' would offer). And Van's lyric swipe at 'pseudo jazz' feels a little bit risky in this context: the backing is echt jazz, I would say, but very much at the smooth end of the genre, without much honk or harmonic edge.
John Cale marches briskly into his eighth decade with Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, finding new ways of being distinctly him, with angular arrangements and squelching electronics, weird songs and animated vocals. A fascinating, edgy mixture which will take time properly to absorb.
But where's the time going to come from? It's taking a bit of doing at the moment to keep Neil Young & Crazy Horse's Psychedelic Pill out of my earphones - and there's nearly 90 minutes of that record to get my ears round. It's not going to win any new converts - and people who know what Neil and the Horse sound like will know immediately whether they're interested in a 27 minute opening thrash which ranges through rants about the quality of MP3s (and an accompanying plug for his memoirs) and the commercial exploitation of Picasso, through to the possibility of the singer acquiring a 'hip hop haircut'. You won't be surprised to hear that I think it is glorious: irresistible musical momentum, squalling guitars - and an intriguing set of conversational gambits from a weird old friend. Somehow, he can get away with clumsy lines more easily than Bob and Van (and the one about Picasso is a real clunker) - partly because the overall persona here is warmer and more attractive, partly because he can still take time to craft and develop a real story-telling lyric when he wants to. 'Ramada Inn' immediately grabbed my attention: a beautifully empathic, 3D portrait of a loving old couple coping with alcoholism. Who else is writing so well about that sort of thing? (Maybe some personal insights in play, given Neil's own widely reported farewell to weed... But, whatever: deftly done.)
Can we have some more listening hours in the day please?