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Van Morrison
Back on Top
(Pointblank)

I don't know if there's a Van Morrison fan club, official or private. Seems to me it would be superfluous, anyway. Just being a fan of Morrison makes you a member of an exclusive and secretive club. Let the general populace go on thinking he's the classic rock guy--you know, "Brown Eyed Girl," "Moondance"--if it wants. We who have been buying everything he has issued for three decades know better.

The Moondance Man is back with another album of mature music to please his faithful harem and anyone else who might want to--in the words of "In the Days Before Rock 'n' Roll"-- climb aboard. Back on Top is a typical 1990s Morrison record, meaning it's just what you would expect, yet it satisfies completely. Morrison is like that great neighborhood restaurant that hasn't changed its menu in thirty years.

The vast Morrison discography will include Back on Top at the laid-back end of the list. Avalon Sunset comes to mind. Most of the songs are the kind of love ballads you would want to hear walking along an empty beach with your significant other, in September, when all the tourists have gone home or back to college.

A few songs do have bite. Morrison has always held a jaundiced view of the recording industry, and on the title track, "High Summer," and "New Biography," he gets to vent a little. Morrison's strong religious beliefs don't stop him from writing verses like "Who would think this could happen, in a city like this/Among Blake's green and pleasant hills?... If there's such a thing as justice, I could take them out and flog them/In the nearest green field/And it might be a lesson to the bleeders of the system."

Back on Top is another first-class effort from a cult hero who just keeps adding to his legend. Maybe this album, unlike the underrated 1998 release Philosopher's Stone, will land on a few best-of lists and put a few more names on the mythical fan-club roster.

--Steve Byrne

Robert Lockwood Jr.
The Complete Trix Recordings
(32 Blues)

Silly rabbit, Trix are for blues fans.
Sorry about that; I just couldn't resist. It's true, however. These recordings Robert Lockwood Jr. made for the Trix label in the mid-1970s are some very tasty blues, and the New York-based 32 Blues label should be commended for resurrecting them.

The songs, recorded in Cleveland, Parma, and Hiram, and included on the Trix albums Contrasts and Does 12, are a fair representation of Lockwood's art. The man simply is one of the best blues artists the world has ever had. It always sounds hyperbolic coming from a Cleveland writer, but hey, everyone has to be from somewhere, and Lockwood just happens to live in our city. Besides, it's nice to have Cleveland famous for something other than an overbearing situation comedy and a racist characterization on a baseball cap.

With any luck, this 25-song double album will dispel the notion that Lockwood does nothing but live off his relationship with his famous stepfather, Robert Johnson. Yeah, there are five Johnson songs here. The guy isn't backing away from the man who taught him the guitar, but Lockwood proves on many examples that he's a jazz guitarist of the first division, influenced as much by Charlie Christian as by his mom's common-law husband. He rips through smooth swingers like the instrumental "Annie's Boogie," Roosevelt Sykes's "Driving Wheel," and boogie pianist Albert Ammons's "Red Top." These numbers mingle well with more familiar Delta blues tunes like "Lonely Man" and Johnson's "Terraplane Blues," and the South Chicago style of "Hold Everything" and "Forever on My Mind."

Praise is also due the musicians who accompanied Lockwood on these records, particularly longtime bassist Gene Schwartz and saxophone player Maurice Reedus. These guys sail around Lockwood's guitar and voice without ever getting in the way.

Lockwood is not in the same stratosphere of notoriety as John Lee Hooker or B.B. King, but he wouldn't be out of place if he were. The reissue of his Trix recordings should be a welcome addition to anybody's CD rack. Now, if we can only talk someone into having him play the national anthem on Opening Day at Jacobs Field.

--Byrne

TLC
Fan Mail
(LaFace)

It's been a pretty tough time for the gals of TLC to get to Fan Mail, their first album in five years. First, freaky member Left Eye burned down her boyfriend's house; then the multiplatinum-selling trio filed for bankruptcy. To top it all off, this album, their third, had been scheduled, canceled, and rescheduled so many times that when it finally hit the streets a few weeks ago, it came as sort of a surprise. Was it worth the wait? Yes . . . and no.

Maybe all those fights with the record company paid off; TLC, as a vocal group, has never sounded so in control of itself. The previous two records sounded like a producer's dream team in action, with one studio whiz kid after another laying down his trademark sound atop the girls' luscious harmonies; it was difficult to tell where the producer ended and TLC started. On Fan Mail, TLC flip the situation on its side and call the shots every step of the way (even with pros like Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, Babyface, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis on board). From the nasty gal shout-outs to slinky hip-hop grooves to the bubbly ballads, this is girls' night out all the way.

Yet, there's a remoteness to Fan Mail that wasn't present on 1994's CrazySexyCool. That superfine slice of '90s-slick R&B yielded two of this decade's best singles in "Creep" and "Waterfalls." Fan Mail doesn't produce such results, despite some valiant attempts at replicating the sound and style (such as the acoustic sway of "Unpretty," which even has a social message--shades of "Waterfalls" here). It's a slicker move and groove being busted this time around, but one that's a bit too calculated for its own good. The trash-talking "I'm Good at Being Bad" (which incorporates Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby") may be a clever robotic twist of cyberwhatever, but it's generally pointless.

The bulk of Fan Mail, unfortunately, aimlessly follows this pattern until the end. Bridged by futurama skits that add absolutely nothing to the package (they're supposed to thematically tie the album into some huge premillennium concept about sex and love), Fan Mail connects only when it plays personal. The lurking "Silly Ho" and the fly-guy-dis "No Scrubs" is street-talk TLC--the stuff that exploded from its very first single, "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," and was the catalyst behind CrazySexyCool. Too often, though, the TLC of Fan Mail sounds content just to leave its past problems behind and move on to the future, style and substance be damned.

--Michael Gallucci

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