Album reviews: Van Morrison | Stereophonics | Declan Welsh and the Decadent West

Van Morrison PIC: Exile Productions
Van Morrison PIC: Exile Productions
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Van Morrison goes back to his roots with a laidback celebration of rock’n’roll, while Declan Welsh’s debut is all swagger and attitude

Van Morrison: Three Chords and the Truth (Caroline International) *** 

Stereophonics: Kind (Parlophone) ***

Declan Welsh and the Decadent West: Cheaply Bought, Expensively Sold (Modern Sky UK) ***

Currently the hardest-working man in showbusiness, Van Morrison has produced six albums in four years – the kind of freewheeling workrate which was commonplace in the 1960s before The Beatles turned studio work into an art form. Morrison’s recent spurt of album activity has looked to the older, more spontaneous model of recording and celebrates the simpler, more soulful music of the pre-progressive and experimental rock years.

Four of these albums have been collections which pay tribute to the building blocks of Morrison’s music education, celebrating old blues, soul and jazz standards, alongside a smattering of originals.

Three Chords and the Truth continues in the same musical spirit, but with 70 minutes of all-new, original Morrison material which finds the gruff Northern Irishman in good spirits – at least sonically – with a band who don’t labour the point.

The mild, mid-paced meander of In Search of Grace is typical of the fare but the mellow musical sashay of Nobody In Charge is the conduit for a dry-as-a-bone assessment of our current political paralysis, rounded off with a swinging sax solo.

Morrison delivers outright disgust and distrust on the stealthy rhythm’n’blues of You Don’t Understand (“trying to see through the Celtic mist… what free state is this?”), while the blithe, breezy twist of Read Between the Lines is a plea for caution in the era of fake news and online outrage.

But there is humour, too, from a man feeling his age. Bags Under My Eyes is his wry country reply to Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again. He seeks solace in the boogie woogie nostalgia of Early Days, his tribute to the birth of rock’n’roll, and delivers a laidback southern soul toast to old times on Days Gone By.

Elsewhere, he is out-gruffed by Righteous Brother Bill Medley on the underwhelming Fame Will Eat the Soul but that’s it for guest appearances – otherwise, this is just Van, band, three chords and the truth.

Kelly Jones of Stereophonics might concur with Van’s bags-under-the-eyes sentiments. But the post-tour burnout he felt last year didn’t last long and a speedy songwriting phase was swiftly followed by a rapid recording session with Tom Petty/Primal Scream producer George Drakoulias, a man who knows how to mine the soul from roots rock.

Kind begins with the slick, rhythmic rap of precision-tooled Stonesy blues rocker I Just Wanted the Goods but what follows is generally a gentler, more intimate affair with Jones sounding at his most naturally soulful on the spare, direct likes of Stitches.

There is a quiet catharsis to many of the tracks. Fly Like An Eagle is a raspy acoustic ballad about rebirth, Make Friends with the Morning a simple, singalong ditty about starting the day right. Hungover For You springs from a pithy concept but the repetitive and sluggish song doesn’t take it anywhere and, by the close of play, Jones has succumbed to the moderate chest-beating of This Life Ain’t Easy.

Glasgow-based Declan Welsh and the Decadent West step into the mainstream indie rock vacuum temporarily vacated by Stereophonics with a debut album which is all swagger and attitude – think the seductive storytelling of Arctic Monkeys rather than the aggressive front of Oasis.

Cheaply Bought, Expensively Sold launches with the helter skelter punk guitars of No Fun, about an encounter with a try-hard party bore (“no one cares if you did all the drugs”), while How Does Your Love captures the precious flashes of invincibility amid the mundanity of provincial living.

Welsh pulls back slightly for Turn Me On’s slick spin on indie romance and comes over like a Caledonian Alex Turner on the declamatory ballad Be Mine, perpetually walking the line between cocky and confident. Fiona Shepherd


Beethoven: Symphony No 9 (Wiener Symphony Catalogue) *****

There are endless ways to approach Beethoven’s timeless Ninth Symphony. Conductor Philippe Jordan opts for one that abides un-fussily by the score, fed by a natural sense of proportion, crisp and comfortable tempi, clear and characterful texture, and the unswerving inevitability required to heighten the glorious arrival of the finale, its shattering first chord, its dismissal of preceding woes, and the sun-filled optimism of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. But what really makes this version by the Wiener Symphoniker count is its precision, shaped and energised by Jordan, defining every note, every meaningful gesture. The opening Allegro combines ripe spirit and gravitas, the scherzo lustrous in response. Out of the lyrical warmth of the Adagio, vocal quartet Anja Kampe, Daniela Sindram, Burkhard Fritz, René Pape and the Wiener Singverein help take Beethoven’s finale to exultant heights. Yes, there are more opulent performances. This one simply says it as it is. Ken Walton


e.s.t. live in Gothenburg (ACT Records) *****

Eleven years on from pianist Esbjörn Svensson’s tragic death in a diving accident, the posthumous release of yet another concert recording may seem tastelessly excessive. e.s.t. live in Gothenburg, however, recorded in 2001, catches this groundbreaking Swedish outfit emerging as a force to be reckoned with. This double album finds them in powerful and creatively idiosyncratic form, pianist Svensson ranging fondly and animatedly about the keyboard, as in Somewhere Else Before, or in some lovely, near-baroque explorations in The Rube Thing. Dan Berglund provides a plangent arco introduction, then that steadily ascending bass line for the stillness of Gagarin’s Point of View, and brings wah-wah twang to the alternating funk and pensiveness of Good Morning Susie Soho. The louche swing of Bowling sees drummer Magnus Öström break out with manic energy while Dodge the Dodo really puts pedal to metal with raucous bass, insistent drum work and relentlessly driving piano. Jim Gilchrist