Friday, January 31, 2014

"If I paint the lashes dark / And the eyes more bright / And your lips more scarlet"

"Astral Weeks" by Jared Chapman. I wish this was a mural on the gable end of a building in East Belfast ... But it's not, so I will keep wishing.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Time spent in Larry Fallon's room

Larry Fallon's room in Van's House ("Whose House? Van's House!") is possibly the most overlooked. By no means should this diminish the significance of Fallon's contributions to Astral Weeks. His room may go unnoticed, but it's highly functional—like a walk-in pantry or maybe a laundry room.

Besides contributing the distinct harpsichord parts to "Cyprus Avenue," Fallon is credited as the album's arranger and conductor. Roughly a week after the third and final recording session, Fallon overdubbed strings and horns. However, where he completed this task is a matter of debate. In his Morrison biography Can You Feel the Silence?, Clinton Heylin claims the overdubs took place at Mastertone Studios in New York City. Peter Mills, in his book Hymns to the Silence: Inside the Words and Music of Van Morrison, says Fallon toiled at the location where Astral Weeks was recorded: Century Sound Studio. Then there's Johnny Rogan's Van Morrison: No Surrender, which rather vaguely states that the overdubs were done "at a studio near Times Square." For the record, Century Sound was on West 52nd Street, while Mastertone—going on what little I could unearth regarding its whereabouts—was located on West 42nd Street. Meaning two out of the three authors mentioned here believe it was Mastertone. Astral Weeks minutia that will interest only the most rabid zealots ...

Anyway, Fallon performed arranging duties on another prominent album from this era: Nico's Chelsea Girl, released roughly a year before Astral Weeks. Chelsea Girl is the sound of a woman who has wept and bled. Nico's voice is flat, bloodless, a touch haughty. She was once gutted and grief-stricken; the pain is no longer fresh. She is reflecting, a widow in her final days of wearing black.

Fallon is responsible for providing balance. Lyricism to offset the wretchedness. Elegance and charm to counterweight the emptiness. Fallon's string and flute overdubs are flawless, a splendid example of how an arranger can slip inside the cracks of a fellow musician's material and create something that doesn't disturb the foundation—how one can stretch their creative wings without spilling feathers all over the other's art.

(Quick aside: Nico distanced herself from the album on account of Fallon's overdubs being too intrusive. "Oh, the flute!" she once exclaimed in an interview. "Oh my God, I was so unhappy when I heard the result of that flute taking over." It should be mentioned that with the exception of "It Was a Pleasure Then," which she wrote with John Cale and Lou Reed, none of these songs were Nico's. This material was penned for her by others—Cale, Reed, Sterling Morrison, Jackson Browne, and Gregory Copeland—or was previously written and recorded by contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin. This fact somewhat undermines whatever authority the vocalist believes she has over Chelsea Girl's production. It should also be mentioned that Nico is a raging, vile bitch.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Benign Envy List

This is my Envy List. Though seeing how it wasn't borne out of malicious envy but rather, benign envy—you know, envy touched with admiration rather than bitterness—maybe we should possibly rechristen it the Benign Envy List ...

Anyway, the following three articles on Astral Weeks are long-time favorites of mine (while eliciting a bit of resentment), chiefly because of how the authors so clearly and creatively articulate what makes the album timeless. The first is the most famous piece of rock journalism ever penned about Astral Weeks. The second—not so much, but it's still absolutely worth a go. The third is by one of the LP's most tireless advocates. Read up, Astral-ytes.

Lester Bangs' oft-quoted contribution to 1979's collection of essays, Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island.

Sean O'Hagan's 2008 piece for The Observer on whether Astral Weeks is "the best album ever made."

Greil Marcus' lengthy album review of Astral Weeks for a March of 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A step away, in one sense, and, in another, a whole world away

Poet Gerald Dawe was born and raised in Belfast. This excerpt is from his book The Rest is History. It goes a fantastically long way toward explaining why an adolescent Van Morrison was captivated by East Belfast's endless nooks and crannies—spots and sites he later immortalized in his songs.
What in effect Buckland is alluding to is the important housing differences as working-class housing bordered upon lower-middle-class housing which in turn bordered upon middle-class housing and so on. A class-consciousness, incremental, tier-system, in other words. Streetscapes altered, widened and opened out the further one moved up and away from the city-basin and its immediate hinterland. From a very early age, Belfast children learned their place in this scheme of things based largely upon their physical surroundings; assimilating architectural and civic barriers of class as much as absorbing, and sometimes, rejecting, or transcending as best they could, the discreet signs of religious—and hence, political identity. Accents, too, played a specific, instructive role in deciding within seconds one's background. For working-class kids who lived in what would approximate today to "the inner city," the "posh areas" were merely a step away, in one sense, and, in another, a whole world away. To know one's own place was both a source of strength but also a terrible inhibition.

It was often out on weekend walks through these avenues and parks that one saw the different styles of life counterposed quite starkly with one's own. Houses like mansions; tree-lined driveways, gardens like parks. Sedate, discreet, private. A landscape of imaginative thresholds amounted to a metaphor of the imagination itself. Yet within the intimate, even claustrophobic closeness of the working-class districts there were the random open spaces of builders' yards, fugitive rivers and streams, old warehouses, industrial networks and vast walls.

For a young boy or girl, part of "a gang of mate," life growing up in such a district was like a pendulum-swing between adventure and boredom, dreaming and routine, desire crossing against the force of custom, expectation and convention.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Personal dispatch #11

This is a dispatch from Christopher Eastwood. He cut a lazied-up, pared-down, scuffed-up version of "The Way Young Lovers Do." Turns out Christopher—who hails from the same corner of the earth as Van Morrison—recorded his cover in a rather unorthodox manner.
"Well, I'm 30 years old and I was born and raised in the city of Belfast, Van's hometown (as you well know). I've loved music my whole life, and fortunately share with Van a background immersed within a vast collection of records. Ever since uttering my first syllables, I have loved to sing. I have played other instruments throughout the years, such as the piano, the violin, and the recorders, although I had only begun to play the guitar when I recorded this little cover of "The Way Young Lovers Do."

Although I now play a Martin OM-21, this cover was recorded on a beginner Tanglewood (very nice beginner guitar, very good value). It was a very spontaneous cover, in my home study, recorded onto my iPhone voice memos. Easy! Listening back now, it sounds amateurish and rough, but I like how it reflects that sense of utter abandon evoked so beautifully in the original. I always found the song a beautiful oddity amidst the other more emotionally complex songs on this great album, where the innocence and starry-eyed idealism of youthful love shine out for all to see. The structure of the song is more formal than the more meandering stream-of-consciousness tracks on the album, and for some reason I find it less objectionable to do a cover version.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

More time spent in Richard Davis' room

This is the second entry in what I hope will be a continuing series. (It was launched here.) We have yet to come up with a snappy title for this series. "Whose House? Van's House!" was the best I could do on such short notice. On second thought, maybe we will not come up with a snappy title for this series. Because titles—snappy, foolish, or otherwise—are not exactly obligatory.

This is "Elvin's Guitar Blues," a track from 1967's Heavy Sounds. The album is a collaboration between bassist Richard Davis and drummer Elvin Jones. The former you know from Astral Weeks; the latter is most famous for his membership in the John Coltrane Quartet and his performances on that group's most celebrated recordings: My Favorite Things, Live at Birdland, A Love Supreme, etc.

The extended opening on "Elvin's Guitar Blues" features Jones on acoustic guitar and Davis on upright bass. It's sparse, prepared, harmonious—it's really not like jazz at all. Davis' bass playing feels withdrawn; he accents Jones' guitar lines for several notes, retreats to silence, returns to play briefly once more, mutes himself again. However, the paucity of this performance is what makes it brilliant—this is Davis bringing beautiful, yet delicate, balance to a song. He is so deft at managing the push/pull dynamic that exists when just two musicians play. You can hear it during particular moments on Astral Weeks and you can certainly hear it here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Personal dispatch #10

This is a dispatch from Jeremy Voltz, who covered "Sweet Thing." Voltz siphons off the original's celebratory delight; his version is sparse and bleak and wounded and mournful. I was reminded of a busker I once saw: In a lonely subway station, he played sad songs on a blemished electric guitar, positioned awkwardly on a milk crate, a mini amp crackling at his feet, the pages from a discarded newspaper fashioned into a bowl that held only a few coins. And yet the busker looked so content.

Jeremy provided some background information, as well as why he recorded "Sweet Thing."
I'm from a small town in Northeast Ohio, but I moved to Toronto a few years ago for grad school (I'm working on a PhD in mathematics). I'm 29 and I've been a musician since middle school, when my dad let me switch from clarinet (which I hated) to a drum set. I fell in love with drumming, took lessons, and joined as many high school bands as I could, ranging from jazz to Irish punk!

It wasn't until senior year of high school that I started singing, when I joined choir on a whim. And well, if you want to sing, you have to play the guitar, so I started learning! I would perform at as many open mic nights as possible throughout college, but since grad school, I've only done shows a few shows in Toronto solo.

But I'm lucky to be a member of an amazing jazz vocal group, Countermeasure, that performs pretty high profile gigs regularly. (We're at the Jazz Bistro on April 13th for anyone in Toronto!)

My cover of "Sweet Thing" was recorded a couple years ago, when a friend asked me to perform at their wedding. She wanted to hear the songs I was planning on playing and though I had been playing sweet thing since college, I didn't have a recording of it. So I recorded it in my bedroom, just electric guitar (Fender Strat) and voice in Garageband, and if I remember, since I had played it so many times before, it was a one-take recording. And for mixing, I kind of just let Garageband do it's thing (the usual compression and reverb). But other than that, it's pretty much untouched.

My parents had the Best of Van Morrison CD when I was a kid and I fell in love with his classics. So in high school I bought Moondance and Tupelo Honey, but I've never listened to Astral Weeks. After looking at your blog, I'll have to give it a listen!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

This is a house; these are the rooms

Once I thought Astral Weeks was a long and twisting road, an album that wasn't concerned so much with its starting and ending points, but the lengthy and extraordinary distance its listeners traversed. Lately, I think Astral Weeks is more like a house. You enter a room and stay there for a bit and explore how you like; you sit and stand, amble back and forth, touch the walls and furnishings, maybe stretch out on the hardwood floor. There are seven rooms in this house, each one occupied by one of the seven musicians who made significant contributions on Astral Weeks. I want to spend the next month or so moving from room to room, spending time with the musicians residing within each one, acquainting myself with the work these individuals did prior to Astral Weeks, as well as any material cut around the time of the album's 1968 release.

Above is Richard Davis' "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," which was on 1970's Muses for Richard Davis. Davis' performance on the double bass is whirring and ferocious yet unceasingly disciplined—like a boxer working a speed bag. He has extraordinary range: His playing is both authoritative and understated. No matter what the approach, you are continuously aware of his presence. He's a genuine frontman, even when playing it out from the back. This same style, form, and authority helped give Astral Weeks its transcendent edge.

Roughly 30 seconds into his solo on "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," Davis goes silent for a few heartbeats, almost like he's coming up for air before diving back down into the music. Use this short pause to catch your breath.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Personal dispatch #9

This is a dispatch from Alison Cecile Johns. Listening to her cover of "The Way Young Lovers Do"—with its smoldering vocals, softly rhythmic percussion, bubbling bass, and somber guitar parts—is like watching the sun slowly burn down to crinkly, grey ash. Alison provided a bit of background information, as well as why she recorded this particular song.
I remember distinctly the first time I heard Astral Weeks. I was living in a town in the Santa Cruz mountains called Ben Lomond. Walking back from the bus stop one night, I ran into a woman and in order to have something to say, I pointed out the constellation Orion. We became friends, and one day she put this on the turntable. She was a transplant from a Christian fundamentalist background in southern California and had performed as a child in a relatively famous Christian youth band. So she had a great musical sense about her. Playing the title track, she closed her eyes and hummed and sang along. The words "To be born again," although she was no longer the devout Christian she had been, seemed to have a deeper significance for her, and thus for me, as I watched her sing. The imagery, the poetry, the details—"putting on his little red shoes," "pointing a finger at me"—I hadn't heard this kind of mystic transcendence in the vocal performance of a white man, frankly, ever. I was submerged in this gorgeous world of light and questions and loss and the kindness of strangers. "Ain't nothin' but a stranger in this world / I got a home on high." Yeah. I might not believe in heaven, but I believed in this sound.

So, that was it. The album has technical problems—overdubs that don't sync up, things that might have been mixed a little better—but it's perfection, and its flaws contribute to that. I've played it for people struggling with the English language who understand the mystic energy of the recording without need for translation. It's just in the sound of the recording, particularly when you listen on vinyl. Some records are like that.

And although I was barely 22 when I first heard it, over two decades ago, whenever I get the urge to listen to it there is a sense of renewal and connection, not to a younger me, but to something of life right now. It's both ecstatic and grounded in experience.

I picked "The Way Young Lovers Do" because, as a vocalist who has done a lot of jazz, I have a special fondness for the jazz waltz. Morrison often has a combination of adoration and lust in his songs, and in "Young Lovers" I wanted to pull those feelings into a more grown-up setting. I also like to cover songs by men and give them a feminine twist with intention—not to make it more feminine with a higher voice or a softer angle, but to embody the story as a grown woman, if that makes sense. I didn't want to strain to re-tell a story that as already been told so well ("Madame George," "Slim Slow Slider"). I think some things, you just had to be there for.

I've been playing professionally, off and on, since the early 90's, studied music formally, but don't do more than fool around on various instruments. I record at home, though, and the guitar, bass, and vocals are all mine. It's all very lo-fi. I only do one vocal take—if I am not happy with it I start over. I am trying to get a feeling, more than perfection. In that way, the songs are more snapshots than polished offerings. I do play live, and am looking to work more doing jazz.