Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Wavelength (1978)

During the past couple of weeks I've dragged out Wavelength for a listen on the daily commute.  I've never had it in my Top 10 Van Albums (which is my benchmark for 'greatness', whatever that means).  It's still a very good album with many pleasant surprises.  I also realise I'm so into Van that I've lost all objectivity about the Man's music, making my reviews virtually pointless. 

Wavelength was considered his 'most American' album on release but Van came to deny the homage to America tag claiming it was based on personal experience.  From the cover the feeling is vaguely "American".  The guy looks like the Californian ideal where he was residing the time of production - tanned, buff, casually dressed, hair a bit sun bleached.    

The album followed the disappointing Period of Transition from the previous year and went gold within three months of release.  Surprisingly, it was his biggest-selling album up to that time.  It outsold Astral Weeks, Moondance and Veedon Fleece, though Moondance would quickly overtake it and eventually sold more than 5 million units. 

Track 1 is Kingdom Hall and is so surprising to anyone who knows something about Jehovah's Witness.  The lyrics that speak of dancing and celebrating music "down at the Kingdom Hall' is in stark contrast to the staid religious observances of JWs.  Van's mother was a JW and I wonder if he ever went around the streets bothering people in the name JWism.  Mainstream evangelical Christianity places the Jehovah's Witness movement firmly into the 'cult' category because of their views about the place of Jesus Christ.  It's an energetic album opener and may be Van's first forays into 'spirituality' which came to define Van’s music on later albums.  

Checkin' it Out is the second track and is a bouncy, lightweight song which stirs up some controversy with his lyrics about 'spirit guides'. It's another example where mainstream Christians find Van lyrics challenging.  It happens with most albums, but that's Van.  He really is a very broad spiritual seeker who can't leave religious themes alone.  In some ways his spiritual quest is the ever-present 'monkey on his back'.  It makes for an easier life if you avoid contemplating the overwhelming evidence that a spiritual dimension exists and just get back to the football and a few pints.  A playful melody with a message about losing your way and finding a beacon of hope in the form of a spiritual guide.  It also hints at Van's primary activity of the era of checking out all kinds of esoteric beliefs and knowledge.  

Natalia is up next and is a well-crafted pop love song.  I hate the fact that I like it because, on the surface, it seems to belong to a performer without the intellectual and spiritual force of Van the Man.  The "na, na, na, na, na, etc." prefix to the the name Natalia has proved annoying to some reviewers.  Me?  I love the man so anything he does is fine by me.  This song has been described as a "free flowing country R&B ballad". 
Track 4 is Venice, USA.   The track is routinely criticised by reviewers as evidence of the man's decline.  However, it really is typical Van and sits well alongside his other work.   Venice is one of the extended tracks on the album at almost 7 minutes.  A number of reviewers have commented on its "odd reggae feel".  Van’s soulful delivery lifts the song from its mundane nature. Lyrically and aesthetically it’s as simple as it gets. 

Track 5 is Lifetimes and again hints at the broad nature of Van's spiritual quest.  Lifetimes has slight reincarnation theme to it.   It's a subtle and smooth number that's easy to enjoy.

Track 6 is another Van ode to radio called Wavelength.  It has some odd synthesiser work on it which sounds a little dated today.  It's a carefully prepared and delicate musical track, with its impassioned vocal and fairly mysterious lyrics. Some people have described it as "plodding" but I really like it.  

The last three tracks are my favourites. Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession, Hungry for Your Love and Take It Where You Find It are fantastic evocative tracks. 

Track 7 is Santa Fe\Beautiful Obsession which is a slow, mellow R&B number in traditional Van style with a little country twist that hearkens back to Tupelo Honey. It is a riveting ballad with self-referential lyrics (“see the cowboy ride”).  The Blues guitar is under stated but perfect.  The transition to Beautiful Obsession is the casual conclusion of the journey to Sante Fe.  

Track 8 is Hungry for your Love.  It is one of those raw, natural love songs that Van churns out each album.  A great track.  

The final track is Take it Where you find it.   It opens with a rolling snare and a mellow marching melody.  Musically and vocally the song is very strong and hints at more eccentric explorations to come on later albums.  It's a brilliant song and is a quietly epic love letter to America.

Overall it's a deceptively strong album.  It seems to take a little while to get going even though the earlier tracks are the most commercial.  The later tracks have the gold.  Garth Hudson from The Band appears on three tracks (Kingdom Hall, Venice U.S.A., and Take It Where You Find It), and Jackie DeShannon co-wrote Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession.  

Side One
  1. "Kingdom Hall" - 5:59
  2. "Checkin' It Out" - 3:29
  3. "Natalia" - 4:04
  4. "Venice U.S.A." - 6:32
  5. "Lifetimes" - 4:15

 Side Two

  1. "Wavelength" -5:44
  2. "Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession" (Jackie De Shannon/Morrison) - 7:04
  3. "Hungry for Your Love" - 3:45
  4. "Take It Where You Find It" - 8:40

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