Thursday, 29 June 2017

A Kiwi Names his Top 5

From the Aphoristic Album Reviews blog written by an anonymous New Zealand music fan, comes this ranking of the top five Van albums.  There's plenty of interesting music opinion there so check it out.   


Van Morrison’s voice is an expressive instrument which synthesises his Irish roots with the R&B and jazz that he grew up hearing in Belfast. His exploration of Celtic Soul has effectively fuelled his entire career, as he veered between commercial pop and more uncompromising efforts. Even if his solo career can sometimes feel obstinate and inconsistent, his body of work is uniquely his own, and he should be remembered as a giant of his era; U2 are perhaps his only competition as Ireland’s greatest musical export.

Honourable Mention:  Beautiful Vision (1982)
Beautiful Vision is one of Van Morrison’s most settled, comfortable albums, like a calmer take on the Into The Music sound, and it’s relatively insular with its low key explorations of spirituality and Irish heritage. Even if he’s sometimes treading water musically, there are plenty of great songs here, and it’s one of his more consistent, most substantial records, even if it’s less adventurous and less universal than his earlier work.

#5 Veedon Fleece (1974)
Veedon Fleece was the last album from Van Morrison’s initial run of solo records; subsequently he went into semi-retirement for three years, only emerging to appear in The Band’s The Last Waltz. In some respects, it’s almost the completion of the circle begun with Astral Weeks; returning to Ireland at the end of his marriage, Veedon Fleece is more steeped in acoustic mysticism than any of his releases since Astral Weeks, and it’s similarly loose in feel. It’s also more noticeably more Irish than anything he’d released previously; there’s little R&B here, using more folk-oriented, acoustic instrumentation, and the lyrics reference William Blake and figures from Irish mythology.

#4 Astral Weeks (1968)
Astral Weeks is a fascinating record; it sounds different from anyone Van Morrison or anyone else has created, and for adventurous music listeners it’s worth picking up for that reason alone. Although Morrison arguably balanced jazzy exploration with more accessible work on subsequent albums like St. Dominic’s Preview and Veedon Fleece, Astral Weeks is his most extreme statement which alone makes it essential as a unique effort in the canon of popular music.

#3 Moondance (1970)
Astral Weeks showcased the stream-of-consciousness, improvisational side of Van Morrison’s music, Moondance is based around punchy R&B and concise pop songs. Side one is packed with five outstanding compositions; the title track, where Van plays Sinatra, is the most well known, but Crazy Love is pretty, Caravan is jaunty, Into The Mystic is lovely and esoteric, while And It Stoned Me is all of the above.

#2 Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)
Morrison’s failing marriage informs his music on Saint Dominic’s Preview. The love songs of the “domestic trilogy” are replaced with more eclectic and ambitious material. Saint Dominic’s Preview is perhaps the quintessential album of Van Morrison’s early career, covering both punchy R&B pop craft like the opening Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile) and artier impulses like the ten minute semi-improvisations that close each side of the original LP.

#1 Into The Music (1979)
Into The Music is a blue-print of the adult contemporary direction than Van Morrison would pursue during the 1980s, but the song writing is so sharp that it’s his best album. It’s slickly produced and loaded with backing vocalists, strings, saxophones, and other adult contemporary paraphernalia, but for these joyous songs the sensory overload approach works beautifully, like being swept away by a wave of intertwined sexual and spiritual power.

While these five albums tend to be among his most well recognised, putting the acclaimed Astral Weeks at #4 is probably unconventional. Hardcore Van Morrison fans tend to gravitate to his more insular albums like 1980’s Common One and 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.

Reader Comments

hanspostcard   -   You’re top 5 is my top 5 but just in a different order. Astral Weeks #1 and one of my top 5 albums by anyone. I don’t think anything he’s done in the past 25 years challenges the top 5 but every album he’s released has some good stuff on it! 1- Astral Weeks 2- Into The Music 3- Veedon Fleece 4- Moondance 5- St. Dominic’s Preview.

Aphoristical   -   Cool – there does seem to be consensus with those five on a few things I’ve looked at, although albums like.  I really like Astral Weeks, but find Beside You at first drop tough to get through. I really like the live album of it he released in 2008 as well.

hanspostcard   -   Yes I like the live Astral Weeks too- I am currently going through the Van catalogue again- I am up to the late 1970’s and “Into The Music” is next.

J.   -   Hard to argue with that list, though I’d have Tupelo Honey in there instead of Into The Music. So, maybe #1 Astral Weeks, #2 Tupelo Honey #3 Saint Dominic’s Preview #4 Moondance #5 Veedon Fleece. Maybe!

Aphoristical   -   I like most of Tupelo Honey, but I really dislike I Wanna Roo You. It’s enough to take that album down to his second tier for me.

J.   -   Not one of my favourites, but I have a soft spot for it. It might be the steel guitar that does it.

stephen1001   -   My personal favourite is the double live Too Late to Stop Now.

Aphoristical   -   I like how It’s Too Late is half made up of songs that aren’t on his studio albums. But I rarely like live albums better than studio stuff.

Hackskeptic   -   I have to declare that I must make a concerted effort to listen to more of Van’s music. I love Moondance and like Astral Weeks but other than that haven’t delved into the rest of his back catalogue

Aphoristical   -   I started with those two as well. But there are plenty of other albums. Of the early albums, Veedon Fleece has a similar flavour to Astral Weeks, while Saint Dominic’s Preview feels half like Moondance and half like Astral Weeks.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Great Moments in Vinyl

The Great Moments in Vinyl blog put out two great posts in June last year. 

Astral Weeks and the People Who Helped Create It

Astral Weeks producer Lewis Merenstein and guitarist Jay Berliner recounted the magic of those particular sessions.  Just three dates in the studio was all it took.  And of those dates, one of them only yielded one song.  Considering how revered the album Astral Weeks has become, it’s amazing that it was put together in just 12 or 13 hours. 

LEWIS MERENSTEIN: Van’s manager Bob Schwaid and I were friends. Van had signed to Warners but no producer wanted to touch him, so I went to Boston at Bob’s request to hear him. He sat on a stool in Ace studios and played Astral Weeks, and it took me 30 seconds to know. I understood. The lyric went straight to my soul, it was immediately clear to me that he was being born again.

I don’t know what transpired between Bang Records and Van coming to Boston, but he had obviously gone through a rebirth. I knew I needed people who could pick up that feeling. Richard Davis was a highly renowned bass player, Connie Kay drummed with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Jay Berliner was a fine guitarist. They were all super pros, but also open souls who played from the heart.

We went into Century Sound. It was a union date. There was nothing sacred about it, but right away it was magical. It was so beautiful, it was hard to take. They would run through the first few minutes of a song, never the whole thing, and then do it. Everybody got the sense of what was being said musically, even if they didn’t get what was being sung by Van. Everybody was into it. I remember Richard bent over his bass with his eyes closed, tuning into Van. It’s hard to give the feeling a voice. It was beyond amazing.

JAY BERLINER: This little guy comes in and goes straight into the vocal booth. He doesn’t have any contact with anyone. We could hardly see him. He must have been smoking something, because all you could see was white smoke in there! He sang and played in the booth, we followed, and these things just… happened.

The first session was 7:00 to 11:00 PM on September 25, 1968. We cut Cyprus Avenue, Madame George, Beside You and Astral Weeks in four hours. It was totally off the cuff. We couldn’t make eye contact, but we were hearing each other through headphones and playing off of each other. Van said nothing. Lew did all the communicating, and he seemed to be very happy. “Keep going, it sounds great!”

There was another session the following week, but I wasn’t available. They brought in Barry Kornfeld, but that didn’t work out. He didn’t have a jazz background. (Only The Way Young Lovers Do was recorded at this session).

The final date was October 15, from 7:00 to 11:45 PM. We did Sweet Thing, Ballerina, Slim Slow Slider and a song called Royalty that didn’t make the final cut. And that was it. It was special, but back in those days you were running from day to day. I did a soap commercial the next day!

LEWIS MERENSTEIN: You know, I don’t think Van had a clue how special it was. He was given the gift, as we all were. The album was like an ending.  From there he was flying away, and out of that came a happier person, which was (Morrison’s next album) Moondance.

On the Origin of Astral Weeks

In 1967, Van Morrison relocated from Ireland to the U. S. to devote himself to a career as a solo artist. But his relationship with his first record company quickly soured. Morrison discovered he had unwittingly signed away ownership of his music. He was unhappy with how his career was being packaged. And he found himself penniless, living in a fleabag hotel in New York City as his first solo single, Brown Eyed Girl, was reaching the top of the charts. It was situation that Morrison began to challenge quite heatedly.

But before he could attempt to work out a solution with his employer, Bert Berns died of a heart attack, and Morrison found himself in the clutches of the owner’s wise guy business partners, men who were even less skilled at dealing with an artistic temperament. Infamously, one of them responded to an angry, drunken tirade from Morrison by threatening to kill him and breaking his guitar over his head.

Morrison took the threat seriously, and immediately relocated to Boston where he and his girlfriend crashed for a time in the apartment of WBCN DJ Peter Wolf. Morrison used the time away to rethink his musical direction. He lined up gigs in the Boston area playing stripped down versions of the new songs he was writing, just himself on guitar and vocals accompanied by an upright bass and another guitarist and sometimes a flutist for added colour.

Lin Brehmer of WXRT tells a story he heard Peter Wolf tell on the air when he was guest on the station. Back in the day, Wolf and Morrison used to like to hang out. “And by hang out,” Brehmer explains, “I mean they used to go out and drink to excess every single night. And after one of these incredible drinking bouts where they stumbled home at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, Peter Wolf went home to bed and woke up early in the afternoon to meet Van Morrison for a cup of coffee or something. And Van Morrison said, (affects northern Irish accent) ‘Hey. I wrote a song last night.’

“Peter Wolf said, ‘You wrote a song last night? You could barely stand last night. You didn’t write a song last night!’

“Van Morrison says, ‘No! I wrote a song last night!’

“Wolf said, ‘You barely could find the keys in your pocket to open the door to get into your apartment. What do you mean you wrote a song last night?’

“And Van goes, ‘Yeah. No, I got home. I wrote a song last night.’

“And the song he wrote when he was apparently insensible,” a song that Brehmer summed up as “one of the most amazing, mystical, spiritual songs of all time…was called Astral Weeks.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Van Morrison: Guy With Serious Pipes

The Electrical Audio blog says that Electrical Audio is a two-studio complex located in Chicago, Illinois and owned by Steve Albini. There is a forum section on the website which has some Van stuff like the thread below in which readers debate the topic as to whether Van is "crap or not".   

 Guy with serious pipes: Van Morrison

Capnreverb   -   How Van Morrison has escaped the crap/not crap is beyond me. The dude has some great stuff and still seems to knock out a good tune every now and then. I am really partial to that song Tupelo Honey right now. Astral Weeks sure is a magical record and even the overplayed Moondance LP is pretty darn good. Also, Them were a killer underrated 60's rock group.

Tree   -   Those three albums are great, then it's great songs dispersed here and there. At its worst, his music gives me that feeling that love is uncomfortable, like you never quite finished after using the bathroom. At its best, his music is on par with Coltrane for a pure, untainted feeling of positivity, that "speeding down the road with the top down, swerving all over and laughing all about" feeling. Just pure joy.

Rashiedgarrison   -   When he is good, he is magical. In the Days Before Rock and Roll is a fantastic piece of music. When he plays the 12 bar blues for 400 albums which are the ones I have to listen to when my dad gives me a lift anywhere, he is soooo bad.

Kenoki   -   I can't get down with Moondance or much after that, but astral weeks (i guess typically) is... whoa... definitely in my top 20 favourites, though no longer in my top 5. . plus he's so small and has chubby lil hands. I love it. Definitely not crap.

Mayfair   -   Veedon Fleece is my favourite of his. I generally like him and agree, when he is great it is unmatched. I find many more of his records to be uninteresting to me. BUT the good ones are worth wading through the less than great ones.

154   -   It's pleasant enough as background music for sipping tea or whatever, but I really don't see the big deal about him. It's about as inoffensive and uninvigorating as music gets, imo.

Mayfair   -   I find 'background music' to be, by definition shallow, uninteresting, and not very deep. I find Van Morrison very soulful and expressive and very human.  Not background at all. I know it often comes off as very 'pretty' music which seems to turn off many loud rock types, which is too bad. I think there is a lot of great stuff in there worth looking past the sometimes off putting 'pretty' veneer. Veedon Fleece and Astral Weeks are the two most serious and realized in my opinion.

tmidgett   -   one of the truly great r&b singers (of any shade) sometimes a clever, twisted, downright odd songwriter. Sometimes banal, but no one hits it out every time.  Every one of his subpar albums has some good music on it and his good albums are OTT.

Tree   -   I heard Domino at a restaurant last night.  I think my favorite thing about him was how he always looked so solemn on his record covers, while the records themselves contain exclamations of pure joy.

whiskerando   -   It's about as inoffensive as music gets. Astral Weeks is more desperate and bleak at points than any noisy band I've ever heard. George Ivan Morrison sometimes sounds the way a blackhole looks - no light.

tmidgett   -   The best three or four Van Morrison records for the rest of my life. And be totally happy with my listening choices.  Jackie Wilson Said is on Saint Dominic's Preview, maybe fourth best Van album! Probably making the final cut in my eternity of Van listening!  But Astral Weeks is #1!

sparky   -   I have a very soft spot for the live San Francisco double album. Too many strong memories from ten years ago are associated with that one. It makes me cringe and smile at the same time; I love it, and it may be awful. Anyone else know it?

tommydski   -   Of course Van the Man is amazing but what about Them? There were a band and a half, and then a half again.

Brett Eugene Ralph   -    Yes, Astral Weeks is number one. Saint Dominic's Preview is number two for me, probably tied with Tupelo Honey, which few people seem to like as much as I do. I think it's up there with Behind Closed Doors as one of the definitive statements of connubial bliss. I especially like Old Old Woodstock and Straight to Your Heart Like a Cannonball. Obviously, the title song is a masterpiece.

So what's the fourth, Tim? Veedon Fleece or Moondance?  Stoned Me is one of my favourite songs ever, and Crazy Love is gorgeous, but I'm not as into the jazzy aspects of that record. Don't overlook 1980's Common One, a weird, wonderful record that always surprises me.

Ivan   -   I know its probably irrational but having heard too many accounts of what a fat little asshat this man is I can't approach his maudlin music without thinking how much I hate him

tmidgett   -   Avalon Sunset is a good record. Enlightenment is a pretty good record. He hasn't made a lot of bad records. Anyway, I think Moondance is number two. It's even MORE like something I would hate coming from anyone else. But it's incredibly good.  His Band and the Street Choir may be my number three. I don't know. That, SDP, and Tupelo Honey are kind of equivalent in my book.  Veedon Fleece is very good, but I don't think it's quite as good.  Wavelength! And A Period of Transition! They aren't very good Van albums, right there. Or A Sense of Wonder, which has the worst cover EVER!

dabrasha   -   Gotta mention T.B. Sheets, which was his last real record for Bang. My favourite track is the Madame George version that is completely different than the AW version. I like them both. It's Too Late To Stop Now's version of Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me is excellent.

Matthew   -   His live stuff could get self-indulgent. I have the live album It's Too Late to Stop Now and he stretches out Listen to the Lion from St Dominic's Preview WAY too long. Just an example. Other than that, I love Van's stuff. St. Dominic's Preview especially is probably my favourite record that he did.

tommydski   -   Recently, His Band and the Street Choir was been on my turntable a whole lot. For whatever reason it never really clicked with me before but after twenty odd years it's finally sinking in. Whilst I agree with Christgau that side two isn't as consistently striking as the neighbouring records, there is enough excellent material elsewhere to make up for it. 'Domino' remains one of the all time great singles. Up there with Jackie Wilson Said even.

Heeby Jeeby   -   My da has a copy of Brown Eyed Girl sent back to Ireland by the man himself. It's signed 'Van the Man in the U.S.A'. Pretty cool and worth a pretty penny or two I'd imagine.

Dr. O' Nothing   -   (White Irish) Soul Man Extraordianaire. Pipes, man, pipes on this guy. Some great albums and songs. Stole the show in the Last Waltz, despite being impossibly sartorially challenged. Not mentioned, but one that i enjoy is the Live at the Belfast Opera House LP.

SecondEdition   -   All I have ever heard by him is Astral Weeks, and I'm not really sure I need anything else, because that record is perfect.  As for "the black hole" effect someone mentioned here before...Slim Slow Slider. Good God. That song is despair.

BadComrade   -   I could never decide if I liked Blow in Your Nose, or Nose in Your Blow more that the other... but the best song he ever wrote was RINGWORM.  I do a reasonably funny cover of Ringworm, and I have been working up one of "Want a Danish."  Seriously, though, Ringworm is gold.

Dovey   -   Never really cared much for the guy, only in the sense that he just wasn't on my radar except for the obvious songs. Easy to dismiss, these obvious songs. They're everywhere.  But seeing his performance on The Last Waltz somewhat piqued my interest. 

Robert G   -   They have Gloria in the pumped-in music rotation at Second Job. Not sure if this is because they think it's a Christmas song, or if it's just because it's old enough to qualify as an "oldie". 

Heliotropic   -   Dweller on the Threshold is great.

JeffP   -   I listen to Van pretty often (usually Astral Weeks, St. Dominic's, or His Band and Street Choir), but I had not listened to Moondance in probably ten years until the other day. Solid gold album top to bottom.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Van Really Needs His Corners

Michael Barnes, in promoting Eddie Wilson’s recently published, Armadillo World Headquarters, shared two Van stories from the book.   

Armadillo World Headquarters

The Austin spot at South First Street and Barton Springs Road was known for more than music, beer and other recreational substances. Food was central to its identity. Many of the stories in the book revolve around the kitchen, where visiting musicians often gravitated.

In this case, Van Morrison presented a humorous conundrum for Wilson’s crew.  “We were pleased as punch that Van Morrison chose the Armadillo to kick off his Caledonia Soul Express tour in January 1974. Van was big box office at the time, and to cover the premium price we paid to get him, we raised the cover to three dollars for his show. All three nights sold out.

Van was supernaturally gifted and more than a little eccentric, but we did our best to keep him comfortable and happy. Genie and I even put him up at our house. During his entire stay in Austin, a young, attractive female companion did all his talking for him. She was introduced as his ‘masseuse and interpreter.’ A typical interaction went like this:

‘Van would like an omelet,’ said the interpreter
‘OK, I’ll be glad to make Van an omelet,’ I said.
Whisper, whisper, whisper.
‘Van would like me to make his omelet,’ said the interpreter.
‘Sure thing. No problem.’

It was a weird three days and nights.  After the last night of Morrison’s three-night run, we made an enquiry into how he had enjoyed the backstage hospitality. We were informed that Van enjoyed the spread, but he didn’t get the shrimp enchiladas Jerry Garcia had told him about. Jan Beeman promised Van that if he came back, she’d have a big heaping plate ready for him.  Van already had another gig on Sunday, but he was off on Monday. We had nothing on the calendar for Monday. Van was agreeable to another show, so we booked the gig, got the word out, and Monday evening, Van had enchiladas for dinner.

One year after taking Frank Zappa to see the yurts (an Austin colony living in round Mongolian tents), I took Morrison to see them. Van listened to the spiel about the healing powers and other attributes of yurts, but unlike Zappa, he never asked a question or spoke a word. That wasn’t surprising, since he hadn’t said a thing during his stay at my house either.

As we left Yurtsville, I was anxious to know what Van thought about it. “What does Van think about the yurts,” I said.
Whisper, whisper, whisper.

“Van says he really needs his corners.”