The new albums by Van Morrison, Bob Geldof and Prefab Sprout all view American music from a Celtic perspective, though the results scarcely make for seamless listening. With its resounding echoes of "Domino" and "Jackie Wilson Said," Morrison's "Enlightenment" reaffirms the singer's obsession with rhythm and blues. Geldof's "The Vegetarians of Love," on the other hand, is a flawed attempt to combine Dylanesque vocals and lyrics with Southern string band spontaneity, while Prefab Sprout's "Jordan: The Comeback" is as lush, pure and ambitious a pop album as you're likely to find.
Van Morrison: 'Enlightenment'
"Enlightenment" (Mercury) will certainly please Van Morrison fans who find themselves wishing he wouldn't drift off into the mystic as often as he has over the years. Instead of invoking the names of William Blake or John Donne, Morrison opens the album with "Real Real Gone," an old-fashioned, Hammond organ soul-shout that borrows lyrics from hits made famous by Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Solomon Burke and Gene Chandler. The profound influence those and other R&B and blues singers had on Morrison is even more apparent on "In the Days Before Rock and Roll."
The lyrics, half-spoken, half-sung, describe an Irish kid scanning a wireless radio in search of rockabilly and blues: "Elvis did not come in without those wireless knobs/ nor Fats, nor Elvis, nor Sonny, nor Lightning, nor Muddy, nor John Lee." Only Morrison knows whether the repetition of the world "Elvis" in that verse was a mistake, but it's entirely in keeping with the way he turns song into chant, mulling over and reiterating key words and phrases. "Youth of 1,000 Summers," the album's other standout track (and a likely candidate to accompany televised sports highlights next year), is as insinuating as it is for precisely that reason.
Indeed, some of the performances, particularly the atmospheric pieces, have little going for them other than Morrison's entrancing delivery and a romantic bent. The lyrics to the love songs "Memories," "Start All Over Again" and "See Me Through," for example, seem utterly lightweight and redundant on paper, yet Morrison ultimately transforms them into heartfelt ballads. One problem though: For someone so obviously enthralled with (and indebted to) R&B, it's a shame Morrison doesn't go out and hire a band that can really do justice to the music. The group featured here, led by British organist and singer Georgie Fame, is largely nondescript, making "Enlightenment" much more of a one-man show than necessary.
Bob Geldof: 'Vegetarians of Love' What Morrison has always possessed as a singer, Geldof has always lacked -- an individual voice. Best known as the force behind Live Aid, the former Boomtown Rat has recently released "The Vegetarians of Love" (Atlantic), his first album in three years. Although recorded in a London studio, with several members of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra sitting in, much of the album clearly draws inspiration from Cajun music. It's also clear that Geldof is intent on trying to create an extremely relaxed atmosphere, but all the cues directed at his band-mates and engineer ultimately make the album sound more contrived than spontaneous.
As a singer, Geldof seldom rises above a Dylanesque snarl, and it doesn't help that several cuts, especially "The Gospel Song," "Thinking Voyager 2 Type Things," "A Rose at Night" and "Walking Back to Happiness," are highly reminiscent of tunes composed by Dylan, Morrison and Mark Knopfler. The best tracks -- "The Great Song of Indifference," "Love or Something Else" and "The Chains of Pain" -- do have a certain off-the-cuff charm, revealing Geldof's knack for composing quirky melodies and lyrics, but those rewards are few and far between.
Prefab Sprout: 'Jordan: The Comeback' After listening to Prefab Sprout's fifth album, "Jordan: The Comeback" (Epic), you get the feeling that the very mention of spontaneity would make singer-songwriter Paddy McAloon's skin crawl. Everything about the album, from its lush orchestrations to its unlikely pop fables, is deliberately and grandly conceived. Although producer Thomas Dolby deserves credit (and occasionally some blame) for that, it's McAloon's febrile imagination that sets the album into whimsical motion and keeps it rolling.
The title track and "Moon Dog" are surreal tributes to Elvis Presley. The first depicts him as a Las Vegas recluse, anxiously awaiting the song that will trigger his comeback; the second, which finds the King happily ensconced on the moon, opens with this typically crafty and tantalizing verse: "The funeral cars crawl down/ The heartbreak side of town/ The mourners all discuss/ The boy who caused a fuss/ We chopped a billion trees to print up eulogies/ But guys we should have guessed/ The girls would say it best."
Granted, McAloon occasionally comes with something as innocuous as "All the World Loves Lovers" and a few other songs that wouldn't be out of place on an album by, say, Michael Franks. But why quibble? Truth is, "Jordan: The Comeback" cuts most of the mainstream pop and lite jazz competition to shreds.