Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Final grade: three frowny faces

A lot of albums ring Robert Christgau's chimes, but Astral Weeks is apparently not one of them. The self-dubbed "Dean of American Rock Critics" confessed to his Astral-induced apathy during a 2002 exchange that's quoted below. Christgau, then in the twilight of his three-decade-plus stint as editor of the Village Voice, volunteered time out of his promo album-devoted life to answer emails from friends and enemies. The Q&A was featured on Scott Woods' web site:
From: J. Bennett
Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2002 2:33 PM

Back in 1977 you wrote a Consumer Guide discussing the albums of 1967. Would you ever consider doing a similar column on 1968? Of particular interest would be your thoughts on The White Album and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, two notorious critics favorites conspicuously absent from the rock library lists in your Consumer Guide books.

As I keep saying, lists are work, Jack. If somebody offered me enough money, I can imagine undertaking such freelance tasks. But I doubt they will, and I have plenty of other projects to keep me busy. I like The White Album, but it's too McCartneyesque to be a favorite, and have never cottoned to Astral Weeks.

Personal dispatch #5

This is a dispatch from Meredith DiMenna, who recorded a cover of "The Way Young Lovers Do." Despite sounding all buttoned-up and reposed, DiMenna's rendition manages to burn with a bit more intensity than the original. To start, DiMenna offered some background information on herself.
I was born in Westchester County, New York, but grew up in Connecticut. I've lived in New York City and San Francisco, but since 2006, I've been a part of the Bridgeport, Connecticut, music scene. I was in a band called Saint Bernadette. I am currently in the studio with a new project called Oh, Cassius! with another singer/songwriter from Bridgeport named John Torres. That's my main project right now.

I've been singing since I was a little girl, and I perform and record consistently. (I am writing this from the studio right now!) I've done a lot of collaborations and guest appearances. I recorded on the single for another band from Bridgeport called The Stepkids. I did a few tracks with a DJ called Black Panther, including this one. And I just do some vox on the new Johnny Winter album that hasn't come out yet.
Then DiMenna offered a wonderful interpretation of the track's lyrics.
I am a huge fan of Astral Weeks. That song ["The Way Young Lovers Do"] is considered by a lot of people to be the worst song on the record and very out of place. It was always my favorite because of the horn arrangement, but I can understand why people don't like it. It's a departure from the overall vibe of the rest of the album.

Then I recently read an interview with Van Morrison and when they asked him about it, he was apparently very coy and said something about it being a simple love song, but his tone sounded very sarcastic. It motivated me to take another look at the lyrics. They seem like the lyrics to a genuine love song, but it's actually about how young love is kind of a ruse, how each person is really in his own dream bubble and not always as connected to the other as they think. That made me realize that the song is misunderstood because the horn section makes it seem like a different song that it is. I wanted to do a version that illustrated the dark side of young love he seems to be talking about.

I recorded this version at Gold Coast Recorders in Bridgeport. This is a very simple arrangement, so the whole thing took about an hour.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

“Anyone who isn't us is our enemy"

This lengthy New York Times piece opens with details on Northern Ireland's growing appeal to zealous followers of HBO's "Game of Thrones." Northern Irish locations have made up the bulk of filming locations during the series' three seasons, spurring fans to visit the lush glens and rocky beaches that became the imaginary land of Westeros.

The highlight of the story is supplied by a Northern Irish tour guided named David McAnirn, whose quote brilliantly captures the utter tragedy of the Six Counties' strife-torn past while hinting at the potential of a bright and peaceful (and tourist-heavy) future. "For most of my life I was in a film set," McAnirn said. "And it was a horror movie."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Personal dispatch #4

This is a dispatch from Alex Doucette, who recorded a rather neat cover of "Slim Slow Slider." Doucette told us a tad about himself, as well as why he covered this particular track from Astral Weeks.
I'm from Pickering, Ontario. I'm 18, but I was 17 when I recorded the song. I've been a musician for about two years though I started playing guitar about six or seven years ago. I used to perform quite often, but I haven't had a show in a while. I record almost every day in my basement studio.

I heard Astral Weeks and it completely changed how I thought a song should be recorded. The whole album just sounds so real and raw. Van Morrison sings with so much soul, and sounds incredibly young and passionate from start to finish.

I felt that I had to cover "Slim Slow Slider" because it seemed to be the most interesting song on the album. I didn't quite understand why I loved it so much, so I covered it. I'm still not sure why I find it so interesting. Maybe because of how simple it is.

I recorded in my basement studio in Pickering. After hearing the song, I took a day or two to let it sink in and then recorded it all in one take. I wanted it to be as real as it could be.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Childhood is a branch of cartography"

I've long adored this essay by author Michael Chabon. Titled "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood," it laments the death of the nomadic child, chronicles the rise of "helicopter parenting," and speculates whether either will help stifle inner creativity. Of course, Chabon's Wilderness does not consist solely of leafy and grassy spaces, spots where the buzz of insects is heavier than the hum of automobiles. To a child, the Wilderness is anywhere that is unfamiliar, unexplained, exotic, unconquered, a tad off-putting, possibly frightening. The Wilderness is anywhere outside the realm of one's own complacency. The Wilderness is a place of infinite discovery.

A number of sentences and passages from Chabon's essay spurred me to consider Astral Weeks and how Van Morrison's interminable adolescent journeys through the vast landscape of 1950s Belfast produced that album's most transcendent moments. Those sentences and passages are quoted here:
Childhood is a branch of cartography.
Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That's because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography.
Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.
The traveler soon learns that the only way to come to know a city, to form a mental map of it, however provisional, and begin to find his or her own way around it is to visit it alone, preferably on foot, and then become as lost as one possibly can.
Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"A performist beautiful to watch in his absorption"

Astral Weeks' gestation spanned two years and occurred on two continents. In Belfast, following the recording of Blowin' Your Mind!, Van Morrison retreated to his bedroom in his parents' Hyndford Street home, strumming his acoustic guitar long into the night, singing into his reel-to-reel tape recorder, "improvising until he hit a rich seam." But it was in Boston, at a club named the Catacombs, where Astral Weeks truly burst into color, where a rough gemstone was precisely polished.

Joined by a pair of musicians from the nearby Berklee College of Music, upright bassist Tom Kielbania and flautist/saxophonist John Payne, Morrison took up a short residency at the Catacombs (the trio's run of shows likely lasted just a few weeks). Said Payne: "That was probably some of the best playing I ever did with him because it was still that moment of first discovery." Morrison spoke of similar exploratory thrills: "I just wanted to break away from this kind of structured thing at that point ... I just wanted to get back to playing and singing really, so it was like getting rid of everything and starting again. It was just guitar, voice, and singing the songs. So Astral Weeks came out of this desire to break out of this rigidity, to extend the lines and chop it up."

This is from a review of a Morrison/Kielbania/Payne gig at the Catacombs. The writer is Eric Kraft:
He makes his way to the stage at the Catacombs, joining Bob Kilbania [sic], who plays upright bass, and flutist John Payne, who is trying for a spot in the tour group. He gets his guitar tuned, carefully adjusts the mike placement, brows knit, anxious that everything be right. He begins with "Cyprus Avenue." He's so involved with it, so into it, that you have the feeling you're involved in a very intimate communication with him. He winces and strains to bring the song up from far within him, producing at times a strangely distant sound that carries a lyrics of loss and disillusionment. He sings with great care, making certain none of the lyrics, none of the tone and intonation are lost to the audience. He is a performist beautiful to watch in his absorption. He had total control over the number and, by now, over most of the audience as well.
Information on the Catabombs is scarce. The address was 1120 Boylston Street in Boston, a 60-second walk from Berklee. Scouring for information on the club, I received this email reply from Harry Sandler, co-founder of the Music Museum of New England and one-time drummer for the band Orpheus:
It was on the corner of Hemingway [Hemenway] and Boylston Street and down three flights of stairs under a pizza parlor. Very dark, dirty. I think there was a pool hall there too. I played there a number of times with Jonathan Richman as my opening.
The pizza parlor Sandler mentions is Little Steve's Pizzeria, which is located at 1114 Boylston Street.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


I've long been enamored with the severe contrasts between the romantic Northern Ireland Van Morrison sang of during the autumn of 1968 and the real, true, legitimate Northern Ireland from that same time period. Just before Morrison recorded Astral Weeks during three separate sessions on Sept. 25, Oct. 1, and Oct. 15, the North stood on the precipice of what would be decades of unimaginable sectarian violence. From Tim Pat Coogan's The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace:
Four thousand people took part in the march on 24 August 1968. It was the first time in the Six Counties that the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome" was heard. The route was from Coalisland to Dungannon where it had been intended to conclude with a rally in the market place ... Here it should be explained that it was not merely the idea of marching for civil rights that was new, it was the idea of Catholics marching. Marching in the Six Counties was something that the Orangemen did of right and the Catholics on sufferance, and in designated areas.
Morrison's songs swelled with a yearning so insatiable it threatened to leave him emotionally incapacitated. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, the songs of Northern Ireland's Catholic population—a group perpetually marginalized, now effectively mobilized, and burning with anger—trumpeted a hardened solidarity and warned of forthcoming catastrophes. Morrison was exhaling softly, wistful over lost days; back home, folks held their collective breath, anxious of the days to come.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Personal dispatch #3

This is a dispatch from Sarah St. Catherine, an artist I briefly wrote about two months ago. St. Catherine, who hails from Vancouver, recorded one of the best Van Morrison cover songs I've ever heard (posted above). She took a few minutes to answer my questions.
When was the song recorded?

The process began in 2010 with a rough demo recording of "Astral Weeks" I did in my home studio. That first version was just me singing and playing the Wurlitzer with acoustic guitar and background vocal overdubs—very spare, just one take of every track. The following year, during the sessions for my album Helios, my longtime friend and producer David Kean brought up that demo and suggested we take a real crack at "Astral Weeks" in the studio.

Where did you record it?

The song was recorded at Audities in Calgary. It really was a match made in heaven, because in addition to being a fantastic recording studio, Audities is like the Smithsonian of vintage 20th century instruments and recording equipment. If you look at the Audities website at the list of pieces in their collection, it's really mind-blowing. The collection gave us a palette of sounds to create a dialogue between the time of Van Morrison's recording and the present day.

How long did it take to record, mix, etc.?

Almost everything was recorded in a single day, because we recorded it live off the floor. That was a really special experience, because it almost never happens anymore. I grew up in the age of overdubs, so having the whole band together on the floor, recording all their parts at once was surreal and exciting. We did four or five takes, and it's really amazing how unique each one was. Also, having everyone together, responding to one another, meant we didn't need to use a click track to keep the parts in line. This really allowed the song to breathe, and you can hear a shift in tempo from the beginning to the end.

Mixing was a bit more of a challenge. David was really careful to make sure it didn't get killed by repetition, because the song is basically just two chords back and forth. On the other hand, he saw it as an opportunity to let the rhythm section and vocal delivery build the song and give it forward momentum toward the conclusion. The mix was massaged a lot to fit the parts together, while maintaining a constant state of change from beginning to end. David called forth his inner shaman mixing that song, swaying with his hands hovering over the board and then snapping back his head. It was really something to see.

What were all the instruments used in the song?

The instruments we chose were first inspired by the Wurli I used on the demo version. It was really important to keep that as the backbone of the track, so everything stemmed from there. Because we were at Audities, our options were virtually limitless, so all the sounds were chosen to support the dreamy, transcendental spirit of Van Morrison's song.

One of the high, singing sounds on the track is the Waldorf Q synthesizer. It uses wave table synthesis, which is a sciencey way of saying that it takes arbitrary chunks of audio data and cycles them in unpredictable ways. The result is these really dynamic synth sounds. And the Waldorf Q in particular is good at achieving a singing, crystalline, liquid timbre. David chose the "singing glass" patch, which was designed around the idea of running a finger over wine glasses.

In list form, we had drums, bass, Wurlitzer 200A, electric and acoustic guitars, ukelele, and the Waldorf Q. I didn't play any of the instrumental parts, which never occurred to me until just now. That's another thing that makes the "Astral Weeks" cover unique, since I'd normally play multiple parts on a song.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the equipment we used in the recording, as some of the pieces have as much impact on the song as the instruments. First of all, we recorded the live session to tape, which is very uncommon in this day and age. We used a Stephens Electronics reel-to-reel, which David claims is the most esoteric and the best-sounding tape machine ever built. The particular unit we used was also used to make The Wall and Rumors, back in the days that it lived at the Producer's Workshop in Los Angeles.

The guys were delighted to be recording to tape, since many of them have been in studios since tape was the standard. Lots has been said about the sound you can only get from recording to tape, but it also adds something special to the process of recording and the experience of it. I remember Kit taking a deep breath and saying, "Man, there's nothing like the smell of chromium dioxide. I miss that smell."

The other big player was the Helios recording console at Audities. It's the only fully restored Helios console in the world. I named the album after the console, because it was the first project recorded on it after the restoration was completed. Like the tape machine, the console has some interesting provenance in that it comes from Strawberry Studios in England, and was the engine for several Joy Division and 10cc records.

All this to say we could never, never have done the "Astral Weeks" cover without the Audities collection of instruments and gear. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to record there.

Did you have anyone backing you? If so, are they folks who regularly back you (either live or in the studio)?

The keyboard parts were played by John Leimseider, who played on a bunch of the songs on Helios and my previous album. He's got this cool style with a little bit of a bluesy touch. And when it comes to keyboards he can do pretty much anything.

The rhythm section were Kit Johnson on bass and Nathan Giebelhaus on drums. The Helios sessions were my first time playing with those guys, but I definitely look forward to working with them again on my next project.

Getting Russell Broom in to play guitar was one of the first choices we made after deciding to cover "Astral Weeks" in the studio. David called him up and said, "What do you think about recording 'Astral Weeks'?" And Russ said, "The whole album?" He would have been into it, too. He showed up with about five guitars and the ukelele. We just turned him loose in the studio and he went to town.

What made you decide to cover "Astral Weeks?"

I fell in love with "Astral Weeks" for so many reasons. The traveling rhythm of Morrison's recording conveys so sweetly a sense of a journey to complement the ecstatic, mystical lyrics. I loved the sensitivity and masculinity of his vocal, and how he just throws himself into phrases. Because it's not just a beautiful song, but also a song about beauty, it's always moved me.

What made you decide to take the approach that you did?

The slower tempo wasn't a conscious decision. It was more a physical response to what the song made me feel. I sat down at the Wurli and let Morrison's images flow through me. The rhythm that emerged is what you hear on the demo and ultimately on the record.