Saturday 24 August 2019

Getting a little help from your friends

Van Morrison
Van Morrison
John Meagher

John Meagher

One would be forgiven for doing a double-take when reading through the list of collaborators on Van Morrison's new album of duets. Michael Bublé - the cheerful, if terribly safe, Canadian crooner whose appeal stretches from giddy teens to grannies? Surely not.

One can see why His Grumpiness would want to work with the likes of veterans Mavis Staples and PJ Proby, who both appear on Duets: Reworking The Catalogue, but it would be quite a stretch to imagine him saying to his manager: "Get young Bublé on the phone. I simply have to have him on my new album."

Despite this, the resulting duet on one of Van's more commercially minded singles, 'Real Real Gone', is unlikely to irritate even the most thin-skinned Morrison devotee and Bublé doesn't disgrace himself either.

But from a purely aesthetic point of view, it's Morrison's duets with the likes of Bobby Womack ('Some Piece Of Mind') and Natalie Cole ('These Are The Days') that deliver pay-dirt. And a duet with Mark Knopfler on 'Irish Heartbeat' is not short on novelty value, either, even if few will be adding it to their 'Essential Van Morrison' mixtape any time soon.

What Morrison's latest album demonstrates is just how robust the duet remains. Once something of a gimmick, it is showing no signs of going out of favour, especially if the musicians hooking up are unlikely bedfellows so to speak.

Roping in a batch of singers for duet-specific albums appears to be particularly enticing to musicians of a certain vintage. Just look at the veritable king of the duet, Tony Bennett, and his eye-catching collaboration with Lady Gaga on last year's Cheek To Cheek album.

It gave the 88-year-old a new lease of life and opened up a whole new audience to the female pop star who's 60 years his junior. It helped that the album was a decent effort in its own right and not just an unlikely couple going through the motions.

Or how about Barry Manilow, whose My Dream Duets album from last Autumn saw him duetting with a host of deceased artists? Quite what Whitney Houston, Mama Cass and Judy Garland would have made of their contributions to the latest cheese-fest from the 'Mandy' singer is anyone's guess.

The duets album isn't just the preserve of older artists looking for a career resuscitation. Paul Noonan - frontman with Bell X1 - released, under the Printer Clips moniker, a duets album to much local acclaim last year. Each of the tracks featured Noonan singing with a different female - both home-grown (Lisa Hannigan, Gemma Hayes) and international (Joan Wasser, Amy Millan).

And, for an appearance on The Late Late Show some months later, he performed another self-penned song 'Hole In My Heart' with his Dutch wife, Amy Van Den Broek. It captured something of that charmingly rough-and-ready feel of recorded music's earliest duets.

There's no exact science to the perfect duet, although many of the best feature both a male and female vocalist. Jay Z can lay claim to two of the greatest recent examples: the rousing, self-aggrandising 'Empire State Of Mind' with Alicia Keys and the sensationally catchy 'Crazy In Love' with the missus, Beyoncé.

The male-female duet was elevated to an art-form by Motown's perfect pairing, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, in the 1960s. Of all the songs they recorded, it's arguably 'Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing' that captured their alchemy best of all. One wonders just what they would have achieved the following decade had Terrell not been felled by cancer at just 24.

Dusty Springfield - another female vocalist who came of age in the 1960s, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic - would be coaxed out of retirement in 1987 for a masterful duet with Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant. 'What Have I Done To Deserve This' could hardly have sounded more typical of 1980s electro-pop, but Springfield rose to the challenge with a vocal that recalled the downbeat majesty of her work two decades earlier.

That year was a fine one for unlikely, but wonderfully affecting duets, as Kirsty McCall helped take Shane MacGowan's broken-down ballad 'Fairytale Of New York' and make it soar.

Any list of great, era-defining duets would have to include Sonny and Cher's 'I Got You Babe' (1965), Frank and Nancy Sinatra's 'Something Stupid', Bob and Marcia's 'Young Gifted and Black' (1970) and John Travolta and Olivia Newton John's 'You're The One That I Want' (1978).

A less dusty vintage would be incomplete without Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue's 'Where The Wild Roses Grow' and Eminem and Dido's 'Stan' (2001).

Whether or not cuts from Van Morrison's latest effort eventually join such ranks, of course, remains to be seen but there's no doubt about one thing - that Michael Bublé duet will open him up to a hitherto untapped audience.

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