Friday, November 13, 2015

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks Expanded and Remastered (Rhino/Warner Brothers, 2015)

The first full solo album by Van Morrison may not have sold too many copies but it would grow to have a pervasive influence on music and culture in general. It is interesting that it is often sited as one of the finest rock albums of all time when it is hardly rock and roll at all. The album was recorded in unusual circumstances: the shy and extremely introverted Morrison in a booth singing and playing acoustic guitar while a heavy hitting crew of jazz musicians provided accompaniment. That really isn’t the right word, since the “accompanying” musicians were Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet on drums, Jay Berliner who played on Charles Mingus’s masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady on guitar, and most importantly bassist Richard Davis. Davis is a bassist of awesome talent, the lynchpin of modern jazz landmarks Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy and Point of Departure by Andrew Hill. His performance here is equal to those; he is a virtuoso, but not a showoff. He dominates the music, but supports it with all his heart. The third layer would be the strings and brass which would be added later on, making for a three layer cake of music that could have fallen apart at any point, but instead works perfectly in on of the rarest of things: an album without fault. The lyrics and singing are perhaps the finest of Van Morrison’s career, whether he sings of the abstract joy and wonderment of life and the universe of the title track or barrels through the blistering jazz “The Way That Young Lovers Do,” he is in complete control of his extraordinary talents. The songs that he has written are like short stories, character studies and vignettes of people that are lost, haunted or who have a sense of spiritual abandonment. One of his most famous songs “Cyprus Avenue” sees the character paralyzed with love for something that can never be – his passionate desire for a fourteen year old girl. The character is lost, stumbling along railroad tracks drinking cheap wine trying to forget, yet he still finds himself hiding in his car watching her walk home from school while fantasizing that she is a princess being pulled by and elegant horse and carriage. It’s an uncomfortable song, but one that is utterly compelling and Morrison sings of his character’s torment with great compassion and seems to challenge us: what is this? Love? Stalking? Pedophilia? Like his greatest songs, the question remains unanswered. “Madame George” is another of his most memorable characters. A transsexual playing “dominoes in drag” who is hounded by the police and the children in the street and admired from afar by one who has taken the train south to see her. Repeating the phrase “the love that loves” over and over builds an extraordinary momentum that makes the story of the drag queen and her admirer all the more compelling. The album ends with he haunted “Slim Slow Slider” with the title character dying presumably of the final stages of drug addiction, and the narrator at a loss about what to do, and then the album fades like waking from a very intense dream. Well, now it is not quite the end with the added expanded tracks, although a respectful silence is added between the album proper and the bonus material. Full takes of “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider” without the fade are interesting to hear and there are also rejected takes of “Madame George” and “Beside You.” All of these are interesting in a behind the scenes way and do nothing to detract from the album itself. The new remastering sounds very good and there is a short essay detailing the making of the album. This is one of the most thoughtful albums ever made. From the arrangement of the music to the extraordinary lyrical content and singing, this is an album that simply cannot be missed. Astral Weeks (Expanded and Remastered) -

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