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Van versus Paul
Morrison and Grandpaboy try to stop the drift by looking homeward

It was pretty sly of Bob Dylan to title his groundbreaking combination of coffeehouse folk and roadhouse blues Bringing It All Back Home, but it wasnít long after this 1965 milestone that rock musicians started taking the notion of returning whence they came seriously. Not that this has to be a bad thing. The most convincing album Iíve heard from Paul McCartney is Run Devil Run, a set of pre-Beatles rock-and-roll covers that he recorded after his wife Lindaís death. Then again, John Lennon hit rock bottom with the same concept on his 1975 Rock íní Roll. "Like so many of the veterans of the í60s trapped in the í70s," wrote critic Greil Marcus at the decadeís close, "Lennon tried to escape a dead end by going back to his roots." Instead, Rock íní Roll only attested to his "helpless drift."

Two veterans of the í70s and í80s are now responding to their own helpless drift with the same new twist on this old trick. Last Tuesday, Van Morrison and Paul Westerberg released new albums that look back as pointedly as Lennon and McCartney did. Yet like Dylan, the homes that they bring it all back to were never really theirs. Dylan created his out of whole cloth; Westerberg and Morrison just move in with distinguished record labels specializing in histories deeper than their own.

With Dead Man Shake, Westerberg becomes the latest white Northerner to release an album of raw "blues/country/rock and roll" on the celebrated Southern-blues label Fat Possum. Itís also the latest release credited to his alter ego, Grandpaboy. Morrison goes to the opposite stylistic extreme on Whatís Wrong with This Picture?, a set of smooth blues, melancholy jazz, and lush soul released by Blue Note, former home to the jazz titans that he loved as a Belfast boy in the í50s.

Given Morrisonís track record, itís no wonder some have already proclaimed this audacious move a disaster. But he trumps his kneejerk critics by declaring himself a washed-up hack bored by his own fame, better than no one but the prying "parasites" who expect more from him. Such cynical venting seems to give him strength, and he illuminates it with flashes of insight. "Jazz, blues and funk/Thatís not rock and roll," he sings on "Goldfish Bowl," a standard 12-bar exercise. Itís a reminder to us parasites, I think, that he escaped Lennonís fate in the í70s with a broad and original species of white soul that abandoned rock and roll altogether. If that soul eventually sank into softness, this set of genre pieces provides him with the scaffolding whereby he might climb out of his pit of complacency, even if he uses it here only to reach ground level.

Just as Morrisonís mystical brooding is now circumscribed by personal crankiness, so these retro-generic settings shortchange the warm modern connection of those í70s albums. Even so, his writing and singing are as varied and animated as the discís supple horn charts, funky organ, and moody strings ó credit Blue Note, which financed much of the same large band that Morrison put together for 2002ís one-shot with Universal, Down the Road. "Once in a blue moon, something good comes along/Once in a blue moon, everythingís not going wrong," sings the curmudgeon. For most of this album, you can actually believe him.

For the second year in a row, Paul Westerberg has come back to a natural slop-rock that makes you want to believe him, too. And whereas the winning chug and yowl of Grandpaboyís 2002 debut, Mono, rarely added up to much, Dead Man Shake comes with a concept: to explore those raw blues and country covers that the Replacements used to give up with real affection on stage. But just as Westerberg seemed to undercut Mono by making it a "secret" bonus disc to his "real" solo album, Stereo, he hedges again by releasing another solo album, Come Feel Me Tremble, the same day.

Anyway, Bob Stinson is dead, Tommy has graduated to Guns Ní Roses, and Chris Mars has found his calling in painting. So though Dead Man Shake is ostensibly powered by the same self-denigrating moodiness as Morrisonís Whatís Wrong with This Picture?, it still feels like a monochromatic fantasy at best, a ruse at worst. Several of the originals and covers are fine, and the overall mood doesnít dishonor the apparent model, Jimmy Reed. But once again Westerberg doesnít bolster his slacker smirk with the kind of content that used to be his ticket to Valhalla. The one heartfelt exception, an excellent rendition of John Prineís "Souvenirs," underscores the loss. "It took me years to get those souvenirs/And I donít know how they get away from me." Sing it, Paul, Van, Paul, Bob ó anyone left standing.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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