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Morrison finds 'Magic Time'

Shelby Lynne gets spontaneous in 'Suit Yourself'; affable Dierks Bentley is back with his sophomore disc.

June 04, 2005|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Neil Young may be the only '60s-vintage rocker who's taken more extreme stylistic excursions than Van Morrison.

Like Young in the '80s, the Belfast Cowboy spent much of the '90s exploring the tributaries running off the wellspring of his singular music, revisiting skiffle, jazz, country and R&B, as if to reconnect with the primary sources of his inspiration.

Those tangents have set the stage for Morrison's new "Magic Time," an album that returns to the elegant, spiritually leaning yet musically grounded sound he brought to his string of gorgeous albums that started with 1982's "Beautiful Vision" and extended through 1990's "Enlightenment."

The various musical components are more distinct here than they were in those albums, the multihued threads surfacing, then disappearing as the album unfolds.

On "Magic Time" (Geffen Records, * * * ) the 59-year-old musician dives right into the eternal struggle between the temporal and the spiritual in "Stranded," with a rock-soul treatment that seems to be a tip of the hat to his late idol Ray Charles. The preachiness that might be expected to hamper a song titled "Keep Mediocrity at Bay" is overcome with a bouncy blues shuffle backing the singer's vow always to strive for something better.

"This Love of Mine" (a 1941 standard with words by Frank Sinatra and music by Sol Parker and Henry Sanicola) gives a punchy, upbeat, big-band treatment to a song Sinatra always sang as a ballad, making it a swinging lament that spotlights Morrison's masterful jazz singing.

His own "Just Like Greta" revisits Morrison's frequent plea to be left alone -- but he sounds less the curmudgeon than someone who's accepted his own solitary nature. The song also evokes the wondrous acoustic jazz feel of "Astral Weeks," the extraordinary 1968 album that marked his transition from roots-loving British rocker to serious-minded artiste.

Romantic loss and loneliness figure into many of the songs, but Morrison balances the scales with the likes of the title track, a stunning country-soul waltz that embodies the joy of being alive. Magic time, indeed.

*

Shelby Lynne

After years of being straitjacketed by Nashville's musical conventions, Shelby Lynne continues to revel in the freedom she won with her 2000 album, "I Am Shelby Lynne," which finally captured the emotional riches she'd been holding inside.

In "Suit Yourself" (Capitol Records, * * * ), there's a deliberate first-take spontaneity to the willful singer-songwriter's recording sessions.

The opening track, "Go With It," begins with a rough run-through before settling into a chunky country-blues shuffle as she sings of relying on her gut. "I Cry Everyday" has such a sultry soul groove you immediately want to hear what Al Green might do with it -- not that Lynne's own take has any shortcomings.

The looseness adds to the straight-from-the-heart purity of the feelings she's exploring -- mostly confusion, loss and sadness, but also the resolve and strength they can unleash. "You're the Man" slips in some wry social commentary, while "Old Times' Sake" offers a wrenchingly bittersweet farewell to a lover who has checked out of the relationship ("It would be a shame if you leave / And find that freedom ain't what you thought it would be").

That attitude is balanced by her admiration for a love that has survived the fires of hell in "Johnny Met June."

A few numbers would benefit from a bit of polishing, but Lynne seems intent, and generally justified, in her take-it-or-leave-it approach.

*

Dierks Bentley

The affability that Phoenix-reared singer-songwriter Dierks Bentley brought to his 2003 breakthrough hit "What Was I Thinkin' " is abundant in his sophomore album, "Modern Day Drifter" (Capitol Nashville, * * 1/2 ).

Bentley even obliquely references that winsome tale of hormones battling common sense in "Cab of My Truck," one of several songs that exploit an easygoing, Alan Jackson-like masculinity that Bentley clearly is hoping to tap.

As a songwriter who wrote or co-wrote most of these songs, Bentley, like Jackson, sometimes confuses detailed description with artistic insight. Just because we get a clear vision of what's sliding around in the cab of that truck doesn't mean we necessarily care.

"Good Man Like Me" is a mid-tempo bluegrass lament drenched with Appalachian atmospherics about a lover who's abandoned him. Elsewhere, as in "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do," he flips that coin and warns the women in his life not to become too attached to this restless wanderer.

Aided by a crisp baritone with the character of aged hickory, Bentley inhabits some of his character sketches convincingly. Other times, though, it feels as if this drifter is just play-acting.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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