Whatever you do, don't ask Van Morrison when he's going to write another Astral Weeks. As much as he sings about hype, his legend, the press and expectations these days, he's liable to blow a gasket. The singer's jazzy new Blue Note release, What's Wrong With This Picture? is awfully obsessed with media bloodsuckers, but he addresses them so directly - forget subtle stuff like allegory and innuendo - that he should remember the old folklore wisdom saying that once you've invited a vampire into your world, you're pretty much screwed.
On the title track, Van seems to regret having recorded his old masterpieces in the first place: "I'm living in the present time ... I've left all that jive behind." I'm not sure which jive he's talking about, but I'm pretty sure I liked it; the blues-based, low-key hipster thing he has going now is just fine, but who would be listening if it weren't for Moondance?
Paul Westerberg, on the other hand, likes digging around in the past so much that he has dirt under all his fingernails. After some '90s albums on which he seemed slightly uncomfortable with the whole rock-n-roller thing - 14 Songs, you'll remember, was styled as if Westerberg had authored a book of short stories - he came back last year with a raucous double album. Of the three - count 'em! - new Westerbergian releases on shelves this month, the DVD documentary Come Feel Me Tremble focuses on that rejuvenated period last year, as he toured through record stores hawking the new version of his old self.
Come Feel Me Tremble also comes in CD form, collecting the songs from the film that hadn't been released on earlier albums. Some of it is very outtake-y, some is gold, and some bangs a chorus into your head so shamelessly ("Hillbilly Junk," I'm looking at you) that you might think you know it from an old Replacements record.
Then there's Grandpaboy, the pseudonym Paul used last year, a codgerish sounding fella who has a new disc out on that label for forgotten bluesmen, Fat Possum. On G-boy's Dead Man Shake, Westerberg does his own (far more compelling) version of what Van Morrison has been doing lately. He plays the blues, country, and raunchy rock, writing new songs in familiar idioms that here sound like his own. Heck, he even covers a couple: John Prine's "Souvenirs" and Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" are both very cool, and the singer proves he still has a sense of humor (did we need proof?) with a goofy cover of the Rat Pack standard "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" In between are solid new originals like the Stonesy "Vampires & Failures" and "Take Out Some Insurance," which could conceivably give his lover the wrong idea.
Finally, just in time for her two birthday gigs at Austin's Continental Club (Oct. 24 & 25), comes a disc from a woman who has alternately fled, revised, and embraced her past. Wanda Jackson's new Heart Trouble, (CMH) is one of the most enjoyable rockabilly comeback records I've heard. Picture the Cramps playing backup on the sexualized classic "Funnel of Love." Imagine Elvis Costello, in full Bakersfield-meets-Bacharach mode, dueting on "Crying Time." Believe that the sixtysomething singer can still conjure a growl worthy of Jerry Lee on "It'll Be Me." Not forgetting her higher calling, Wanda drops some groovy gospel on "Walk With Me," but gets right back into action with a high-voltage "Let's Have A Party" - proving that stepping into the future needn't require jettisoning the past, regardless of what Van the Man says. •