Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Van Morrison 2: Moondance

Having found a way to make the music he heard in his head, Van proceeded to record a collection of songs that covered all his interests: jazz, folk, country and even pop. Of all his records—and he’s got a lot—Moondance is still the best place for newbies to start.
In a departure from the esoteric jazz sound of Astral Weeks, the album is overtly catchy, with memorable choruses and hooks aplenty. None so more than “And It Stoned Me”, which seemingly describes a journey to a fishing hole with a stop off at a guy who offers the narrator and his friends a welcome drink of water or something stronger. Whether that something is to be considered sinister is moot for our purposes here; the singer is just happy to reveling in the day and what the moment has to offer. Maybe they’ll even catch something. A pointedly more adult journey is taken on the title track, still one of the most unique tracks ever recorded in the rock era, layered by a jazzy bassline, piano and flute backing. “Crazy Love” is an overt love song, complete with the Sweet Inspirations helping out, just like they would have had he stayed in the “Brown Eyed Girl” mode forever. “Caravan” manages to convey images of a gypsy troupe in the countryside along with the wonder of hearing amazing new and old sounds on American radio. But it’s “Into The Mystic” that crowns it all, a wondrous song about something and nothing, taking joy in whatever it is that’s rocking Van’s gypsy soul. These songs are perfect, and give another reason why the art of the album side must be preserved.
Side two is slightly straighter pop, less deep but still catchy. “Come Running” works in the saxophones that supported the songs on side one, but they were so unobtrusive that they didn’t overwhelm. They continue on “These Dreams Of You”, a nice loping fable that begins in Canada. The Sweet Inspirations return for “Brand New Day”, a wonderful celebration of the same. “Everyone” was famously used for the closing credits of The Royal Tenenbaums, and hearkens back again to his earlier image while hinting at the depth he’d decided to plumb. (That sure is a prominent harpsichord, isn’t it?) Which only makes the jumping bass of “Glad Tidings”, an early clue to the new direction, all the more welcome.
Again, Moondance is a solid pop album. If anything, its relationship with its predecessor can be compared to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, wherein the latter softened the delivery to make the message more palatable. Even if that was his intention, he wouldn’t admit it, but he would rarely attempt to be so universally accessible going forward. (And if you’re looking for further distraction from his longtime image, take a gander at the liner notes, written by his then-wife with the alliterative hippie name. It’s quite a leap from the Van who’s best known for being grumpy and lonesome.)
A good 43 years after its original release, with virtually no warning or seeming tie-in, Warner Bros. created something of a Moondance Sessions set, adding 50 tracks on three discs to the original LP (plus a surround mix). Along with multiple working takes of half of the album’s songs, there are also lengthy, raucous takes of “I’ve Been Working”, 13 takes of the ultimately unreleased Van-goes-to-Rio “I Shall Sing” eventually pawned off on Art Garfunkel, and alternate mixes aplenty. (A cheaper two-disc option offered 11 of these. Van, who did not authorize the project, condemned it in all formats.)
As with any jazz performer, Van constantly modified arrangements until he was satisfied with them, so hearing the directions these songs might have taken is fascinating. While the band is certainly tight on “Caravan”, we can be grateful he dropped the “buttercup” rhyme for the album version. “Glad Tidings” began in the tempo we know, but was also tried and abandoned in slower takes. (Take 9 is a keeper, however.) Sadly, he did not end “Into The Mystic” with “it’s too late to stop now” every time.

Van Morrison Moondance (1970)—4
2013 Expanded Edition: same as 1970, plus 11 extra tracks
2013 Deluxe Edition: same as Expanded Edition, plus 39 extra tracks (and Blu-ray disc)

3 comments:

  1. Nice write up, Wardo, thanks. In '81 I was involved in helping some friends make a self-produced 45 in LA. The producer of that single was Jeff Labes, the keyboard player for the Moondance LP. He talked about the sessions being a miracle that anything usable was made at all. Waiting hours for Van to show up, and when he did he was mostly incoherent from drinking. I still love this album, though not as much as Astral Weeks. I get a chuckle every time I spin Moondance because of it.

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  2. That's a great story! I met one of the engineers on this album and the next, and he said that Van was certainly an odd guy, who would be all over the place and then pull off a song in one take.

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  3. Of course, this was the first Morrison that I heard on the radio, with tracks from the title song through “Come Running” all becoming radio hits to varying degrees at the time. I actually never heard “And it Stoned Me” on the radio. But the first time that I heard the song, it, well, stoned me. Emotionally – I don’t really agree with a possibly insidious interpretation. The song perfectly captures an innocent, joyful childhood memory. It’s tied for my favorite with “Into the Mystic”, which succeeds totally in taking the listener there. The album can’t help declining after that, but the second half is still more than listenable. “Everyone” is indeed the most interesting track in this section, but the harpsichord (or clavinet?) perhaps makes it the most dated. He certainly wouldn’t use that is his arrangements today.
    I have to agree that this is the first stop after “The Best of..” if someone wants to go deeper. It certainly contains a lot of his most accessible non-single album tracks.

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