Monday, January 17, 2011

Van Morrison

Van Morrison is one of the artists I followed faithfully (buying everything he released as soon as it came out) over a long period of time. There are a select few such artists that get this treatment: Beatles, NRBQ, Robert Palmer, Boz Scaggs, Sons of Champlin, and a few others. More recently I've followed Gomez, Semisonic, Subdudes, Nick Lowe, and Matthew Sweet with almost as much dedication. Of course sometimes the quality of product changes dramatically and the artist no longer gets this level of treatment. This happened with Bob Dylan, Elton John, Elvis Costello and countless others.

The earliest Van Morrison records were the two records he released with Them, a blues-based rock band in the mid-sixties that sounded very much like early Animals. I've heard most of this material, but I don't own it. The first Van Morrison solo record was Blowin' Your Mind! in 1967. It included the hit Brown-Eyed Girl, but Morrison has always claimed that the songs were never intended for an album, and judging from the quality, it is hard to argue. This material has been reissued many times under several names, often including additional material that is at least as bad as the original release.

The first "real" solo outing then, Astral Weeks 1968, was a tour de force. Somehow, and the story is covered pretty well over at Wikipedia, Van was put in the studio with several jazz session men, and produced an album of acoustic folk-jazz that stands as a unique statement to this day. The delicate, improvised backing to Van's ethereal lyrics and melodies makes for a record of startling intimacy. Not a big seller, it received critical acclaim, and has taken on well-deserved mythic status over the years. All the songs are good, especially Astral Weeks, Beside You, Cyprus Avenue, The Way Young Lovers Do, and Madame George.

Next up was 1970 breakthrough Moondance. A mellow, slightly jazzy pop-rock record that made Morrison famous and garnered plenty of FM radio play, the record is a classic by anyone's definition. Infusing the folk-jazz of Astral Weeks with strong melodic songs and an R&B overtone, side one is perfection with And It Stoned Me, Moondance, Crazy Love, Caravan, and Into the Mystic.

1970 also saw His Band And The Street Choir hit the charts in November. The record featured Van's love of R&B, with simple blues and rhythm numbers featuring more simple lyrics than many expected of Van. While sometimes seen as a lesser work compared to Moondance, it has held up remarkably well over the years. The inclusion of Van's highest charting single, Domino, helped sell the record, but I've Been Working, Call Me Up in Dreamland, Blue Money, Gypsy Queen, If I Ever Needed Someone, and Street Choir are all standouts. A personal favorite.

Tupelo Honey 1971 featured a more country sound than Van had exhibited before, and is another strong record, with singles Wild Night and Tupelo Honey leading the way. The country thing would remain an anomaly for Van until the early 2000s.

1972 brought Saint Dominic's Preview, a record that still holds up today, and features examples of almost every style Morrison has worked in. The R&B of Jackie Wilson Said and the title track, the countrified soul of Redwood Tree, and the extended jam/vocal catharsis of Listen To The Lion. The lengthy workouts on Listen To The Lion and Independence Day hint at what will come in his 80s work as well as hearken back to Astral Weeks in their improvisation.

1973's Hard Nose The Highway isn't his best from this period, but the title track, Snow in San Anselmo, Warm Love, and the surprising cover of Bein' Green are all good.

In early 1974, the 2-LP live It's Too Late To Stop Now showed what Morrison and band were capable of on stage, and it deserves a place on a short list of the best live records. A set list including highlights from his recent output plus soul and R&B covers, a crack band finely honed, a small string section, and Van singing his heart out, it all comes together. It is also recorded with particular skill, and is extra special on a good stereo system.

Veedon Fleece 1974 was Morrison's next, and probably falls somewhere between Hard Nose The Highway and Saint Dominic's Preview in overall quality. The highlights include Bulbs, Cul De Sac, Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, and You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River. The mellow tone of the record, inspired by the Irish countryside, foretells Morrison's focus on the spiritual/natural/seeking themes that will feature in his work in the 80s.

After an unusually long hiatus from recording, Morrison returned with Period Of Transition in 1977. An apparent return to the R&B of His Band And The Street Choir, the record was widely panned, and mostly deserved the press it received. Flamingos Fly is pretty good, but most of the record seems thrown off, and it is definitely one of his weakest outings. It is one of the only times that Morrison seems quite this disinterested.

1978's Wavelength was a partial return to form of sorts, but claimed a new sound for Morrison, a more pop sounding recording featuring guitar and synthesizer high in the mix. The songs are generally good, and the record sold well on the strength of the title track single as well as Kingdom Hall, Checkin' It Out, Natalia and the extended jams of Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession and Take It Where You Find It.

Into The Music 1979 was hailed as Morrison's best songwriting since Moondance, and it is a remarkably consistent record. The best of the record, Bright Side of the Road, Full Force Gale, You Make Me Feel So Free, and And the Healing Has Begun is testament to Morrison's skill as both writer and singer.

The 80s were a difficult time for Morrison fans, as he made a string of spiritual/seeker records that featured ultra-mellow tone poems without much of the old R&B kick that signals his best work. Long slow songs celebrating nature, countryside, poetry, love and spiritual yearning, these records just never really got it done. Common One 1980, Beautiful Vision 1982, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart 1983, Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast 1984, A Sense of Wonder 1985, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher 1986, Poetic Champions Compose 1987, Irish Heartbeat (with The Chieftains) 1988, Avalon Sunset 1989, Enlightenment 1990 and Hymns To The Silence 1991 all suffered from the same problem, that being a lack of energy. There are some fine vocal performances, and some excellent instrumental performances, but songwriting is too much the same. There are a few treasures buried here (Summertime In England, Cleaning Windows, Ivory Tower, Whenever God Shines His Light, Have I Told You Lately, Real Real Gone), but you gotta dig. The quality seems to rise near the end of the eighties, and Avalon Sunset and Hymns To The Silence are pretty good with a few more quality mid- and up-tempo songs.

Enter the 90s and it's a mixed bag of disappointing records alongside some real beauties. 1993's Too Long In Exile was well-received in the press, and it is a very strong set. A scatter-shot sort of record that takes in all styles from guest blues great John Lee Hooker on Gloria, to Yeats poetry adapted for music, and all the usual Morrison styles in between. It has it's mellow moments, but it is more balanced than his records had been in more than a decade. Darn fine, really.

In 1994 Van released A Night In San Francisco. A 2 CD affair including versions of many of his songs from the eighties mixed with blues covers and a few older songs, everything gets transformed into an R&B dream. Heading a fantastic band, and turning his entire sleepy 80s catalog into James Brown styled soul-jazz workouts with soul-shoutin' vocals and crazy medleys, it is a great record. An essential record.

If you'd never owned a Van Morrison record, and you bought 1995's Days Like This, you might think it was pretty good. But it's not. The title track isn't bad, and neither are a few others, but there is some bottom barrel stuff on this record. With Van, the songs and the lyrics need to be there. Here you get a good melody with banal lyrics, or you get decent lyrics hung on some overused cliche of a tune from years ago. There's a few too many of Van's whiny "I hate the music business" songs, too. You've been warned.

Then a sharp return to form with How Long Has This Been Going On? 1996. Starring Georgie Fame on organ and Pee Wee Ellis on sax , the record was recorded live sans audience at Ronnie Scott's Club in London. The live performance and the room's ambiance make for a great sounding record, and Van sings his heart out on mostly covers of jazz and blues standards. Van's take on That's Life is a gas, and the extended Moondance is excellent. Not a perfect record, but a fine performance by Van the singer and a tight band.

1996 also saw the arrival of Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison, credited to Van Morrison, Georgie Fame, Mose Allison and Ben Sidran. A swell idea, and Allison's songs deserve the tribute, but they also deserve better than this. Reportedly recorded in a single day, that would certainly explain the slap-dash feel of the record. It coulda been a contender... but it's not.

1997's The Healing Game was, at least for me, an astonishing return to form, and the best studio work he'd done in a very long time. Rough God Goes Riding, This Weight, Waiting Game, Burning Ground, It Once Was My Life, Sometimes We Cry, and The Healing Game all rate with Van's best songs, even if the lyrics are a little odd on a few. More than Too Long In Exile, this one feels like a record- complete with a crack band, good songs, great soulful singing from Van- and a cohesive sound. You've got to go back twenty years to hear one this good.

The Philosopher's Stone 1998 was a 2-CD collection of previously unreleased tracks and alternative versions that plays about as well as most of those things do, and that is not that well. You only need it if you're obsessed, and even then most of it is superfluous.

1999 saw Back On Top, a remarkably egotistical record title, even for Morrison, and not at all a self-fulfilling pronouncement. It has some good semi-rockers (Back On Top, Precious Time), and some fine mellow moments (When The Leaves Come Tumbling Down, Golden Autumn Day), but it's not The Healing Game. It's a pretty good one though.

2000 was an odd year, with a fun record of basic rockers and a super-terrible skiffle outing. The Skiffle Sessions-Live In Belfast 1998 is among the least interesting Van Morrison records ever. Skiffle being essentially the English folk music with a shuffle beat that was popular in the late 50s- early 60s in the UK, this record draws all the interest of a Kingston Trio reunion. Wake me up when it's over. But the same year brought the Van Morrison/Linda Gail Lewis duet record You Win Again, a delightfully simple rock and roll record that was made with Lewis's band backing. For anyone to duet with Morrison is a difficult task, but Linda Gail (Jerry Lee's little sister) rises to the task. This one sounds like Van singing along with a seasoned bar band, and that works just fine. Let's Talk About Us, You Win Again, Think Twice Before You Go, Shot of Rhythm and Blues, Cadillac and Baby (You've Got What It Takes) all stand out in a solid if somewhat basic 50s rock and roll record. Van and Linda Gail sound like they're having fun, and their vocals work well together, even if I can't quite tell you why.

Down The Road was released in 2002, and it's an unusually strong collection of songs, and a solid record with good playing. Like The Healing Game, the record has a cohesive sound, although the production and recording, not to mention the band itself, are very different from that record. Some of the songs have a country feel not unlike Van's approach on Tupelo Honey, while other songs plow the blues and R&B furrows. Highlights include Down the Road, Meet Me in the Indian Summer, Talk Is Cheap, The Beauty of the Days Gone By, Evening Shadows and Fast Train.

What's Wrong With This Picture? 2003 was a pretty good record, and was nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues Album category. Those Grammy dudes I just don't get sometimes. I'm not sure it's a blues album per se, but it's pretty good product again. Evening In June is almost worth buying the record for, but there are quite a few good songs and Van is in good voice for the most.

2005 saw Magic Time, and he scores again. At this point nobody really expects Van to make a great record, and maybe this isn't Moondance or Astral Weeks, but it's so much better than you'd expect at this point in his career. Stranded is a classic. Celtic New Year, I'm Confessin', Just Like Greta and Carry On Regardless are strong contenders.

Pay The Devil 2006 is Morrison's real country record. Twelve covers of classic country tunes and three Morrison originals. Stellar cast of musicians. I'll be brief here. It shouldn't work, and guess what, it doesn't. And he's really not a country singer, he's an R&B singer. Duh. Oddly enough, the tour to support that generally awful record produced a good live album, the 2-CD Live at Austin City Limits Festival 2006, which was sold exclusively at the now defunct official Van Morrison web site. It's a fine career overview, taking in highlights from almost all eras. The band is hot, and Van is in fine form. Go figure.

2008 brought Keep It Simple, and this time the title prophecy holds up, and Van delivers his third or fourth killer record in ten years. It's a straightforward blues/folk/soul record, and I could mention some songs, but it is another high water mark for the man.

Which brings us to Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl 2009. Full circle. This recent re-recording of Astral Weeks is quite an event among Van Morrison fans, and received a fair amount of press upon release. It may be too much for casual listeners, but if you've been listening to Astral Weeks for the last 40 years, it is irresistible. And lovely, really, in that Van does not cover his early album, but reimagines it, with the songs performed in a new order and with new arrangement twists.

There have of course been several best-of collections. For the casual fan, the first Best Of Van Morrison 1990 is a good single CD choice. Best Of Volume Two 1993 is a different beast, drawn mostly from his eighties albums. It plays better than any of those single albums did, but it is not the hits collection that the original Best Of is. Best Of Volume Three 2007 is a 2 CD affair with one-off guest spots and sountrack songs mixed with some live material and a few good ones that didn't make the first two. It's good.

Recently (2007) Van Morrison at the Movies - Soundtrack Hits was released, and it's all over the map, but contains a few versions available nowhere else, and Still on Top - The Greatest Hits, which was released in 1, 2 and 3 CD versions, with most of the songs remastered. Sometimes remastering is a good thing. I haven't heard it, but the song selection is good.

Much of Morrison's output is available in new vinyl, including several of the more resent issues. Check your retailer.

Essentials: Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band And The Street Choir, It's Too Late To Stop Now, A Night In San Fransisco

Good Ones: St. Dominic's Preview, Veedon Fleece, Into The Music, Avalon Sunset, Too Long In Exile, How Long Has This Been Going On?, The Healing Game, You Win Again, Magic Time, Keep It Simple, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl

Avoid like the plague: Blowin' Your Mind, A Period Of Transition, The Skiffle Sessions, Pay The Devil

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