Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Van Morrison

Reviewed on this page:
Bang Masters - Astral Weeks - Moondance - His Band And The Street Choir - Tupelo Honey - St. Dominic's Preview - Hard Nose The Highway - It's Too Late To Stop Now - Wavelength - Into The Music - Common One

We're a ways from having complete coverage of everyone's favorite Irish jazz/rock/R&B/soul balladeer. But at this point we've heard enough to form a definite opinion - that is, a mixed one. His emotive tenor is an effective distillation of American influences like Ray Charles; he's a productive songwriter and a versatile instrumentalist, often contributing saxophone, keyboard, and guitar parts; and his early experiments with mixing musical genres were occasionally daring and often unique. But neither of us finds him a particularly interesting lyricist, and his decided stylistic limits, frequently listless jams, and low-key backing bands don't impress us either. Still, though, Morrison shares James Taylor's ability to deliver sentimental and impressionistic music that never offends, even if it rarely grabs one's attention.

Morrison's early career with the Irish rockers Them didn't last very long, and the group wasn't a major factor on the mid-60s British Invasion scene. "Here Comes The Night" was their biggest hit, and Morrison's "Gloria" went on to become a rock standard, covered by everyone from the Doors to Jimi Hendrix. Morrison collaborated frequently with American musicians after going solo, moving to Woodstock for several years, and had a string of American Top 40 hits beginning with 1967's "Brown Eyed Girl"; 1970s "Domino" was another high point (Britain never really embraced him). After the early 70s Morrison was no longer a force on the singles charts, but his long stream of albums earned him critical praise. His personality quirks also have earned him a lot of attention - he's apparently a mercurial fellow, deeply religious and just as deeply misanthropic. Little of that seems to matter to the music, though, which maintains a consistent tone whatever he's doing.

There's a very respectable Van Morrison web site that's probably essential viewing for fans. (JA)

Them (Them: 1965)
"Baby Please Don't Go" was a breakthrough single and British EP for Them early in 1965. That led to the recording of two LP's, neither of which included the song. The first one did include "Gloria," and the hit single "Here Comes The Night" was added to the US version. "Mystic Eyes" was also on the album and was a minor-league hit in the US around Christmas time. And there's a cover of "Route 66" here (also done by the Stones in the mid-60s), but most of the material seems to be original. (JA)

Them Again (Them: 1966)
Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" gets covered this time. The second and last Them LP, not counting numerous later compilations. (JA)

Bang Masters (rec. 1967, rel. 1991)
For what it's worth, this is everything Morrison recorded during a couple of brief trips to New York in 1967. Matched with hack producer Bert Berns, Morrison was prodded to deliver Tin Pan Alley pop music with early-60s style female backing vocals (Berns' "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)"; "Chick-A-Boom"; "Send Your Mind"). Naturally he rebelled, pushing the band towards soul and R & B, dragging them through a long, weird blues with morbid lyrics ("T. B. Sheets"), laying on heavy poetic imagery everywhere, and eventually generating a first-rate pop tune with a lot more grit than you'd expect: "Brown Eyed Girl," a Top 10 single that's still a classic (the record also presents an alternative take). The sessions are indeed interesting, but after nearly two LP's worth of material it gets tiring. The pop tunes are inconsistent, there's no prominent use of sax as on most of his later records, and there are oddities like a Mediterranean ballad ("Spanish Rose") and a druggy slow-dance number ("The Smile You Smile"). But most of it does show Morrison's later influences: gospel ("It's All Right"), blues ("The Back Room"), R & B (a cover of "Midnight Special"; the moderately energetic "Joe Harper Saturday Morning"), and a little jazz (the piano-driven "Who Drove The Red Sports Car"). Collectors will also want to hear the long, loose versions of "Beside You" and "Madame George," which were recut for Astral Weeks. The liner notes don't name the studio pro band, but it probably includes guitarists Eric Gale and/or Hugh McCracken. (JA)

Blowin' Your Mind (1967)
The first of three rip-off records released by Bang to cash in on the success of "Brown Eyed Girl." See our review of Bang Masters. (JA)

Astral Weeks (1968)
- With the chance to make his own record, Morrison came up with this, basically soft rock recorded with jazz musicians (including the Modern Jazz Quartet's Connie Kay on drums). Which might sound not too different from what Simon & Garfunkel were doing at the time, but where Simon's work is carefully composed, arranged and produced, Morrison relies on sponaneity. The liner notes brag that Morrison cut the album in two days, and you know, it sounds like it: the lyrics are stream of consciousness, and usually the tunes seesaw endlessly between two or three chords. The musicians sound like they don't know what he's getting at, and the fact that most of the songs have no clear melody doesn't help. Morrison's fans often cite this as their favorite album, because there aren't a lot of distractions from his distinctive, half-spoken vocals. But if you're just getting into him, you're probably better off with Moondance -- unless you're a fan of New Age music. (DBW)
- Much of the record is formless, with frustratingly unresolved grooves that plod on and on - much like contemporary Tim Buckley, right down to the string bass, noodling acoustic guitar, and vibes (title track). But Morrison's vocals are stylistically much more narrow, and he's got even more players in the room fiddling away on their respective instruments. There is an energetic, finger-snapping jazz-pop number that hints at his later successes ("The Way Young Lovers Do"), and the groove-till-you-drop approach does come together as pure tension-building on the relatively brief "Sweet Thing," and the see-sawing licks dropped in by a string quartet often break up the monotony; he also gets some mileage out of all the varied instrumentation (e.g., harpsichord and Old World fiddle on "Cyprus Avenue"). Produced by Lewis Merenstein and "arranged and conducted" by Larry Fallon; the rest of the band is Jay Berliner (guitar), Richard Davis (bass), John Payne (flute and sax), and Warren Smith, Jr. (percussion and vibes). (JA)

Moondance (1970)
Morrison's first really crafted, economical pop record, and arguably the best thing he ever did. The swinging, romantic title track is a radio favorite; its jazz-pop fusion was innovative at the time, and it still sounds fresh and engaging. But that's not the only famous tune - there's also the mid-tempo "Caravan," which has a grittier horn part and a stronger beat to go with its famous "la, la, la la, la la la" chorus. And those are just the highest of many high points: the mellow balladry of "Crazy Love," the gently dramatic, "Dock Of The Bay"-like "Into The Mystic," the optimistic swing of "These Dreams Of You," the Aretha Franklin-like testimonial "Brand New Day," and finally the finger-snapping "Glad Tidings." Throughout, he rides the same sort of formulas that eventually caged him in: braying saxophone hooks, some gospelly female backup vocals, and consistently laid-back, jazzy instrumentation. But he also breaks the mold with the extraordinarily joyful "Everyone," with a solid chorus, some interesting flute parts, and an energetic harpsichord. "Come Running" doesn't do much with its blend of conga and honky tonk piano, but it's just about the only mediocre track. A must-have for anyone who appreciates Van Morrison. Produced by Morrison, who plays some rhythm guitar but no sax; the band includes John Schrorer (soprano and alto sax), Collin Tillton (tenor sax, flute), Jeff Labes (keyboards), John Platania (guitar), John Klingberg (bass), and Garry Malabar (drums). (JA)

His Band And The Street Choir (1970)
Morrison was still fully in control at this point, carefully composing and arranging everything, and making efficient use of his slightly jazzy horn section, sparingly employed chorus, and Stax-Volt influenced rhythm section. He's shorter on ideas this time, but he still ends up with another mild-mannered, tasteful, occasionally exciting, and tuneful blend of R & B, jazz, folk, light blues, and pop - he even literally goes with 50's doo-wop on "Give Me A Kiss." It's just loose enough to feel live, but too tight to ever get dull. And sounding like a low-energy, soft-rock Joe Cocker as it does, it's not terribly original; you might be happier with authentic late 60s soul a la Aretha Franklin. I also find his lyrics dull, with a lot of pedestrian rhyming couplets, generic love-song sentiments, and navel-gazing attention to the singer's own moods. But that's Morrison's whole schtick, so if you like it you'll find the album a good follow-up to Moondance. Oh, and don't forget the record's two big Top 40 hits: the up-tempo "Domino," with a swinging horn part of the kind used frequently here, and the slightly silly, electric-Dylanesque "Blue Money," ironically one of the weaker tunes. (JA)

Tupelo Honey (1971)
The last really solid effort of Morrison's classic early period, rendered distinctive by a heavy country-western emphasis and some prominent flute parts. The swinging, Stax Volt-influnced leadoff track "Wild Night" was a deserved Top 40 hit, blending Steve Cropper-style rhythm guitar, a pumping horn section, and wailing pedal steel (a remake also became a hit for John Mellencamp and Me'Shell Ndegeocello). The slowly-building, Carole King-like title track is one of his best-known pop songs; "Old Old Woodstock," with mellow vibes, bass and piano a la the Modern Jazz Quartet, is one of his most effective up-tempo ballads; and on the down-tempo (but not down) side there's his amazingly dramatic and sincere love testimonial "You're My Woman." But Morrison succeeds even with experiments: "(Straight To Your Heart) Like A Cannonball" blends reverby, arpeggiated guitar, goofy backing vocals, and a gentle 3/4 beat; "Starting A New Life" and "I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)" are pleasant acoustic country; and "When That Evening Sun Goes Down" mines a mid-tempo boogie woogie sound a la the Band. Despite several seven-minute running times, very little of the record drags; even the labored "Moonshine Whiskey" suite has decent dynamics and a couple of solid riffs. Not surprisingly, the album was his second and last to go gold. Co-produced by Ted Templeman. The band is Schrorer and a horn section, Mark Jordan (keyboards), Templeman (organ), Ronnie Montrose (guitar), John McFee (steel guitar), Bill Church (bass), Mallabar (percussion), Connie Kay and Rick Schlosser (drums), and a chorus including Morrison's then-wife Janet Planet. (JA)

St. Dominic's Preview (1972)
Despite marking Morrison's slide into rambling small-combo jazz, this is still professional to a fault and mostly entertaining. He does deliver a handful of pop tunes flavored with a female choir and earnest saxophone; the dance-friendly, ecstatically joyful "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" will have you jumping out of your seat, and its sophisticated, slightly atonal sax riff lifts it well above the usual Morrison love songs. But it wasn't a Top 40 hit, and the album didn't go gold, which surprises me because it's so much in the vein of earlier records. After all, the title track is an entertaining example of Morrison's R & B formula, and there are other nuggets like the 3/4-4/4 "Gypsy" scattered about. Still, though, the record has problems. Two tracks swing on past ten minutes: "Listen To The Lion" wastes a guest appearance by Connie Kay and some bizarre vocal histrionics on a minimal pop tune, and "Almost Independence Day" breaks the mold with a droning Moog synth part, but exhausts a dull, repetitious riff. And "I Will Be There" is an unimaginative big band jazz number. Definitely not the place to start with Van Morrison, but a decent buy. (JA)

T. B. Sheets (1972)
One of the Bang releases consisting mostly of recycled tracks; see Bang Masters. Also said to have been released in 1974. (JA)

Hard Nose The Highway (1973)
A respectable, but very low-energy effort that never really rises to the level of Morrison's best albums. Lyrically it's somewhat interesting: there's the usual vivid imagery in the service of sentimentalism ("Autumn Song"), but also a couple of bitter 60s post-mortems ("The Great Deception") and some pure poetry ("Snow In San Anselmo"). But musically, the best track is a merely pleasant, mellow pop song with a decent refrain ("Warm Love"). "Autumn Song" also has a strong melody and shows a little instrumental creativity with some soothing flute and vibes, but it pointlessly repeats itself for ten full minutes. Elsewhere there's an interesting, but aimless orchestral experiment ("Snow In Anselmo"), some solid but routine up-tempo material ("The Great Deception"; title track), a string-augmented version of the old folk song "Purple Heather" (a.k.a. "Wild Mountain Thyme"), and a cover of Joe Raposo's lightweight jazz-pop tune "Bein' Green," which comes off like a torch song for the kindergarten set. So there's nothing essential here, but at least the arrangements are relatively concise and consistently tasteful. Produced by Morrison. The band is Jeff Labes (piano and band leader), David Hayes or Marty David (bass), Gary Mallabar or Rick Schlosser (drums), and a horn section led by Jack Schrorer; singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon guests on some backing vocals. (JA)

It's Too Late To Stop Now (1974)
Morrison's forgettable first live album. The arrangements are so sleepy and backwards-looking you'd think the 60s never happened. Instead, the band shows off its jazz influences ("Wild Children") and faceless professionalism. The first disc includes one real hit ("Domino"), and "Warm Love," "Into The Mystic," and "I've Been Working" are all recreated pretty carefully. But the rest aims for a low target: "I Believe To My Soul" is an overpracticed Ray Charles homage; "Help Me" is a weak, feel-good blues redeemed by a slide guitar solo; "I Just Want To Make Love To You" is as overplayed as a tune can be. He does bring out the heavy firepower on disc 2 ("Saint Dominic's Preview"; "Here Comes The Night" and "Gloria," watered down into three-minute oldies; "Caravan"). But he also delivers a dull, childish blues ("Take Your Hand Out Of My Pocket") and an amazingly lethargic take on Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me," and some of the tunes really sprawl ("Listen To The Lion"; "Cypress Avenue," which almost falls apart completely). If it doesn't bother you to think of Morrison converging on a martini-drinking Vegas lounge singer, this might be the album for you. The players are Labes, Hayes, Schroer, Dahaud Shaar (drums), John Platania (guitar), Bill Atwood (trumpet), and a string quartet. Produced by Morrison and Ted Templeman. (JA)

Veedon Fleece (1974)
I've also got this one, but it's lost in a pile somewhere. (JA)

A Period Of Transition (1977)
After an unusual three-year layoff - the only time he ever went even nearly that long without releasing an album - Morrison ditched his old band for an all-star studio cat lineup, including Dr. John (keyboards), the rhythm section of Ollie Brown and Reggie McBride, and a ton of backup vocalists. (JA)

Wavelength (1978)
Having already gone most of a decade without a hit, Morrison decided to ditch his jazz-influenced formula temporarily and cut a conventional pop record. At least he succeeded in making the thing conventional: there's hardly anything here hinting at any of the 70s major musical innovations, such as glam rock, punk, funk, or disco - the one nod at reggae is so dull it's more like calypso ("Venice U.S.A.," with a Garth Hudson accordion solo; he also plays keyboards on two tracks). Instead, it's one mid-tempo tune after another, with routine rock instrumentation, alternately squiggly and tinny synth parts, and occasional flourishes that just barely remind you whose record it is: female chorus vocals, Van on sax a couple times, and a couple of long, slow, romantic songs with overwrought fades that give him an opportunity to ad lib ("Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession"). It's hard to argue with a great singing voice, but apart from some pleasant AOR tunes like "Kingdom Hall" there's little else here to keep your attention. A completely new band this time, with few guests. Bob Tench plays electric guitar throughout and joins the chorus to sing some backing vocals; I didn't realize Tench was a competent lead guitarist, but he's often buried in the mix and hardly ever solos, except on the title track. Morrison usually plays acoustic guitar, and there's also Peter Bardens (piano, organ, synth), Mickey Feat (bass), and Peter Van Hooke (drums). (JA)

Into The Music (1979)
More pop, but this time it's more focused and deliberately breezy, with hardly any hint of rock instrumentation - new guitarist Herbie Armstrong stays entirely out of the way - and a lot of swaying, upbeat horn parts (by movie soundtrack composer Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis), stately violin and viola (by Toni Marcus), and sentimental piano (by Mark Jordan). Morrison's moaning vocals are more poorly enunciated than ever, and he drags two of the best tunes close to the breaking point (the romantic "Angeliou," which circles around a I-IV vamp; the wild-eyed testimonial "And The Healing Has Begun"). "Bright Side Of The Road," a middling hit in Britain, is probably the catchiest number, but its good-timey New Orleans beat and Katie Kissoon's intrusive backing vocals make it irritating. Still, though, only a few tunes are truly dull ("Troubadour"; "It's All In The Game"; the sleepy "You Know What They're Writing About"), and the record is consistently accessible, veering from slick sing-along soul ("Full Force Gale," with Ry Cooder on slide guitar) to growling, hand-clapping Gaelic folk music ("Rolling Hills") to innocuous pop with lite jazz and disco influences ("Stepping Out Queen"; "You Make Me Feel So Free"). Self-produced; the rhythm section is Hayes and Van Hooke. (JA)

Common One (1980)
Morrison now gave up on his mainstream AOR audience and dove right back into his sleepy mid-70s jazz-pop formula. This time, however, it's almost pure mood music. His material is more oblique than ever, and trumpeteer Mark Isham is spotlighted with lengthy, ethereal Miles Davis-style solos. "Haunts Of Ancient Peace" has an airy chorus and an almost imperceptible tune; the love song "Wild Honey" sweeps by with a florid, Hollywood-style orchestral arrangment. The only two efforts with grit both fail: an Al Green-style soul number ("Satisfied") sports a silly call-and-response chorus and lengthy horn solos, while "Spirit" seems shapeless outside of its generic, gospel-style refrain. And then there are the two quarter-hour epics, both ambitious but exhausting. The string-fortified "Summertime In England" alternates between some mildly funky riffing and some positively glacial grooves, with Morrison randomly dropping names of literary figures and emoting like crazy; while "When Heart Is Open" goes off into deep space with a watery, dream-like arrangement, haunting but incredibly dull - like "1983" minus dynamics, effects, or virtuoso playing. Artistically sincere, it's completely inaccessible to anyone who isn't already entranced with Morrison's mystical impressionism. Co-produced by Morrison and Henry Lewy; same backing band as the last record, including Herbie Armstrong and Mick Cox (guitar), John Allair (keyboards), Pee Wee Ellis (sax), Hayes and Van Hooke. (JA)

Beautiful Vision (1982)
Isham and the usual band members are joined by Rob Wasserman (bass) and Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler (guitar). A return to shorter running times, and it looks like there's an unusually religious and mystical focus in the lyrics. (JA)

Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983)
Same band as usual, with Isham; there are a few instrumentals, which isn't typical of most Van Morrison records, but they don't have unusually long running times. (JA)

A Sense Of Wonder (1984)
Morrison finally left Warner Brothers records at this point, switching to Mercury. The band was carried over largely intact, except for Isham. (JA)

Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)
There are no 60s oldies here at all, and Morrison instead focuses on more recent compositions with religious themes. Same band as usual, including Isham. (JA)

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)

Poetic Champions Compose (1987)

Irish Heartbeat (with the Chieftains: 1988)

Avalon Sunset (1989)

Enlightenment (1990)

Hymns To The Silence (1991)
This one is a double CD. Fellow British 60s rock veteran Georgie Fame (keyboards, vocals) was in Morrison's backing band by now, and still is; the Chieftains guest on a few tracks. (JA)

Too Long In Exile (1993)
This one has a version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and a few other covers. (JA)

A Night In San Francisco (1994)
A double live record actually recorded over two nights. There are several medleys here and several unusual selections, including "Stormy Monday," "My Funny Valentine" (also done by Chaka Khan), and even "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin." (JA)

Days Like This (1995)

How Long Has This Been Going On (1995)
A live record featuring a horn section, one female backup vocalist, and Fame. A version of "Moondance" is among the 14 tracks. (JA)

Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison (1996)
Allison, a well-known blues singer/songwriter, appears on a couple of tracks here, and Morrison sings on only half of it, with Georgie Fame appearing on a couple others. (JA)

The Healing Game (1997)
It looks like the track "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" is a new composition and not related to the 1967 Pink Floyd album. (JA)

Back On Top (1999)
Have this one. A rather optimistic title for a new studio album that's gotten mixed reviews. (JA)

Down The Road (2002)
That's putting it mildly. (JA)

Into the music...

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