There is something admirably workmanlike about Duets: Reworking the Catalogue, the new release from genre stalwart Van Morrison. Sure, the record doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it never tries to. It’s nothing more and nothing less than what is advertised on the box; a collection of songs reworked by the very same man who first brought them to life.
Casual fans of the man’s work might be a little turned off by the track listing: there’s no Have I Told You Lately? or Gloria in sight. Rather, the songs are Van Morrison’s unappreciated gems; quiet classics like Wild Honey or the dusky, brilliant If I Ever Needed Someone.
None of the songs have been completely transformed; there are no radical about-turns in terms of tone or structure. The most one can say is that the versions collected in Duets are slightly slicker; just a little bit more upbeat. Album opener Some Peace Of Mind, a duet with the late great Bobby Womack, is a brash, enjoyable affair, that had my heart singing out if not for Van Morrison himself, then certainly the dearly departed Womack, who passed away only last year.
The guest spots largely work, thank goodness; the record would be a trainwreck if they didn’t. George Benson’s turn on Higher Than The World is admirable, largely due to the satisfying way his and Van Morrison’s tones compliment one another. In a nice little postmodern twist, P.J. Proby himself guests on Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby. He and Van Morrison both do grand work in their version, bringing life, color, and an ever so sly sense of humor to the lush, lounge-y song.
The undisputed highlight of the album for me personally, however, is the reworking of Carrying A Torch, a song that features jazz legend Clare Teal. The song has always been my favorite from the latter portion of Van Morrison’s career, and Teal does tremendous work. The fact that she so confidently holds her own against Van Morrison, one of the kings of soul, is an impressive feat indeed.
Of all the artists who pop up on the record, the two most famous are arguably Mark Knopfler and Michael Buble, who lend their voices to Irish Heartbeat and Real Real Gone respectively. Both do solid work, but old pro Knopfler is the one who inspires the most respect; his subdued, restrained turn on the touching track is fine indeed.
Whether it’s a cliché to type or not, Duets is obviously a record that has been crafted with love. Without ever feeling self-congratulatory or indulgent, the work manages to pay tribute to a great, great songwriter. It’s almost like a Best Of album…Only better.