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Van Morrison with Georgie Fame and Friends
How Long Has This Been Going On
Verve

If the "this" of the CD's title is meant to allude to Van Morrison's jazz leanings -- made explicit here after years of jazzy shadings and tangents -- then it's probably been going on at least since Morrison was a boy listening to his father's records. Astral Weeks, Morrison's 1968 masterpiece, was recorded with jazz musicians backing him in the studio; 1971's Tupelo Honey featured Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay; early '70s sessions featuring Morrison with the jazz-funk band the Crusaders have never been released; and in 1977, A Period of Transition featured unabashed jazz exercises right alongside Morrison's more recognizable R&B stylings.

So this 1995 teaming with British R&B-and-jazz fence-straddler Georgie Fame makes perfect sense, even if "How long has this been going on?" isn't really the appropriate inquiry. The true question is two-part: "Why didn't they do it sooner?" and "When are they going to do it again?"

Morrison jazzes up four of his own compositions here, including "Moondance," which, believe it or not, gets a new lease on life as the result of Morrison's clipped scatting. Fame adds vocals and his tasteful but far from invisible Hammond organ to the mix. Also, the presence of saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis in almost every track would make How Long a worthwhile jazz record even if Morrison were taken out of the mix.

What makes this a great jazz record, however, is the span of the material to which Morrison applies his unique stamp. Trickster sophisticate Mose Allison is the favored composer, with "Your Mind Is on Vacation" and "Don't Worry About a Thing" covered here. King Pleasure and Lester Young's "The New Symphony Sid" gets a lyrical update courtesy of Fame, and the Gershwin brothers title track -- way too fine a song to be taken lightly -- gets all the subdued swank that Morrison and Fame can deliver, which turns out to be plenty. Crack a bottle of Scotch, hit the repeat button and sink into this stuff. It's good for you. -- Brad Tyer

Walt Mink
El Producto
Atlantic

Walt Mink hails from the once-seething musical hotbed of Minneapolis, but this curious trio sounds like nothing unearthed from the Twin Cities music scene in recent memory. Put simply, Walt Mink is a progressive rock band that thinks it's a pop band that wants to be a punk band. Their studied chord progressions, well-timed rhythm changes and overall fiddling with structure is straight out of the "I-worshipped-Rush" handbook. As a result, the heavier songs on the new El Producto demonstrate a power trio approach closer to the tradition of Rush's Moving Pictures than, say, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime or HYsker DY's New Day Rising.

But the members of Walt Mink pay their respects to those two post-punk power trios through other channels, incorporating the HYskers' diffident, take-it-or-leave-it attitude and restless spirit, and the Minutemen's skewed sense of the ridiculous. With the exception of three precious acoustic numbers, Walt Mink also manages to apply a punker's penchant for frantic pacing and brevity, while maintaining the warmth and coziness of the best '60s and '70s pop and rock. On tracks such as "Betty," "Little Sister" and "Overgrown," effortless, layered harmonies give rise to misty-eyed memories of the Fab Four, the Byrds and early Tom Petty, as band members confine their frantic interplay to economical three-minute spurts.

While it's obvious from El Producto that Walt Mink take their music seriously, they refuse to get wrapped up in the self-important cocoon that's hog-tied great power trios of decades past. After all, how many serious musicians would use photos of the band seated at a kitchen table in jammies, wolfing down breakfast, for a CD cover? Or pen lyrics with titles as cloyingly cute as "Me and My Dog"? Or name a major-label debut after a brand of cheap cigar? And just so all of this silliness wouldn't be mistaken for a passing phase, Walt Mink even named themselves after their favorite psychology professor. Apparently, the guy is flattered beyond belief -- as he should be. -- Hobart Rowland

The Derailers
Jackpot
Watermelon

The Derailers are a prime example for anyone interested in arguing the point that having a feel for country music is a gift, not a learnable skill. The group's second release, Jackpot, steers around the traps that snag many good live country bands so effortlessly that it makes you wonder why some Texas acts spend careers trying to capture a sound that comes naturally to the Derailers.

On Jackpot, producer Dave Alvin, wisely realizing that the rhythm section of bassist Vic Gerard and drummer Lisa Pankratz is strong enough to power the Derailers without production frills, keeps things simple. Gerard, a veteran of the Austin country/rock circuit, in particular accounts for many of the album's intangibles with a swinging and diverse collection of danceable bass lines.

Ultimately, though, what carries the Derailers past good bar band status is their songwriting. With tunes that echo lost-in-the-Hill Country groups such as Two Hoots and a Holler as much as they do Buck Owens and Hank Williams, Derailers frontmen Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt manage to steer around musical and lyrical clichŽs and, perhaps most important, self-consciousness. When the Derailers test their loyalty to tradition by getting a little loose and creative -- as on the mournful "Swan Song" and the raucous "She Left Me Cold" -- they prove to have the talent to back up their musical curve balls. Jackpot moves the Derailers up there with Junior Brown and Dale Watson as reasons why roots-country fans should thank God they live in Texas. -- Gerard Choucroun

 
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