Friday, 30 October 2015

"Astral Weeks" by VAN MORRISON (2015 Warner Brothers 'Expanded Edition' CD Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...To Be Born Again..." 

While Van Morrison fans may want to kiss the rotund hem of his slightly soiled garment – they've had to acquire the patience of Mother Theresa at an Adolf Hitler Appreciation Convention when it comes to his CD reissues.

Four sets of Remasters were to appear in 2008 and 2009 covering his entire back catalogue (I reviewed most of the first 2 batches at the time) – but the final two sets were unceremoniously cancelled by the great curmudgeonly one at the last minute. It’s now been the guts of a decade involving heated legal wrangling with record companies to finally arrive at 2015 - Sony/Legacy acquiring the rights to his entire catalogue and sating fans appetites with a 2CD pre-set "The Essential Van Morrison" in August 2015 (digital downloads of most of his catalogue are available on iTunes from October 2015 including titles by his first band THEM). Warner Brothers have also given us a fab "Moondance" Deluxe Edition and Super Deluxe Version in October 2013...

Now at last we get major CD Remaster holes in his formidable canon of work filled - the first two being 1968's magisterial "Astral Weeks" and 1970's more approachable "His Band And The Street Choir" - both reissued by Warner Brothers in Gatefold Card Sleeves on 'Expanded Edition' CD Remasters and both pitched at mid-price. Here are the Cyprus Avenues...

UK and USA released Friday, 30 October 2015 – "Astral Weeks" by VAN MORRISON on Warner Brothers 081227952310 (Barcode 081227952310) plays out as follows (74:15 minutes):

Part 1: In The Beginning [Side 1]
1. Astral Weeks
2. Beside You
3. Sweet Thing
4. Cyprus Avenue

Part 2: Afterwards [Side 2]
5. The Way Young Lovers Do
6. Madame George
7. Ballerina
8. Slim Slow Slider
Tracks 1 to 8 are the album "Astral Weeks" – released November 1968 in the USA on Warner Brothers WS 1768 and September 1969 in the UK on Warner Brothers WS 1768 (re-issued in the UK in August 1971 on Warner Brothers K 46024). All songs are written by VAN MORRISON - LEWIS MERENSTEIN Produced the album.

BONUS TRACKS (Previously Unreleased):
9. Beside You (Take 1) – 5:58 minutes
10. Madame George (Take 4) – 8:24 minutes
11. Ballerina (Long Version) – 8:02 minutes
12. Slim Slow Slider (Long Version) – 4:54 minutes
Tracks 9 and 10 recorded 25 September 1968 – no dates provided for 11 and 12

VAN MORRISON – Vocals, Guitars
JAY BERLINER – Lead Guitar
JOHN PAYNE – Flute and Soprano Saxophone
WARREN SMITH, Jr. – Percussion and Vibraphone

This 2015 CD Reissue comes in a gatefold card sleeve (gold sticker on the outer shrinkwrap) - textured like the matt original American vinyl album cover with the word 'Stereo' centred at the top and the 'Seven Arts' Warner Brothers logo design on the rear cover. The rear artwork is as per the US original but has cleverly been altered to allow for the 'Bonus Tracks' to be placed in the same typeface beneath the text without looking odd (UK issues were laminated and had Orange Warner Brothers labels – the new CD is Green). The inner gatefold has a period outtake photo of Van on the left flap (moments before the cover photo was taken) - while the right side has the Master Tape Box for 'Part 1: In The Beginning'. The 12-page booklet continues that theme with the cover page having the Master Tape Box for 'Part 2: Afterwards'. The texture of the pages is similar to the superb "Moondance: Deluxe Edition" of 2013 - recycled and woody - and contains new liner notes by CORY FRYE - an American Newspaper Editor and noted Musicologist. STEVE WOOLARD has produced the Reissue and CHRIS BELLMAN has carried out the Remaster at BERNIE GRUNDMAN MASTERING (the outer gold sticker declares it to be 'First Time Remastered' – has worked with Neil Young, Carole King and Alanis Morissette). As you can see from the track list above – the total playing time of 74:15 minutes is also generous.

Having had the occasional track remastered across the last 30 years or so (Japanese SHM-CDs and "Best Of" compilations) – it comes as something of a shock and frankly a thrill to finally hear just beautiful this 'whole album' really is. This thing sounds fabulous. All the instruments resonate and feel alive – the analogue warmth intact – the plucked strings and Horn flourishes – this is a properly sweet sounding CD Remaster (well done to all involved).

Producer Lewis Merenstein had worked as an apprentice to Tom Wilson the go-to Avant Garde and Rock Producer of the Sixties - Sun Ra, Eddie Harris, The Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa to name but a few. Van's players for the sessions were all steeped in Jazz – Jay Berliner had played Guitar with Herbie Mann and Charles Mingus – the Bassist Ray Davis had done stints with Kenny Burrell and Eric Dolphy and so on. As a Producer - Lewis Merenstein had done the knob-twiddling deed with The Barry Goldberg Reunion and Charlie Musselwhite – so he knew his way around Blues and Jazz rhythms (he would return to do "Moondance" in 1970 and go on to work with The Mamas And The Papas, John Cale and The Spencer Davis Group). Recorded in only three sessions - the professionally played but inspired sloppiness comes out in Merenstein's sympathetic 'keep it loose and spontaneous' production. There are hiss traces on "Madame George" and "Slim Slow Slider" for sure - and I’m glad of that. None of the tracks sound compressed or dulled or tampered with for the sake of modern cleanliness - it's a careful transfer – yet alive - with the air circulating around the music.

The impact of the Remaster is immediate. The opening 15 seconds of "Astral Weeks" is likely to illicit tears amongst even the most jaded fan – and when those strings, vibes and flute kick in – the effect of the improved Remaster is magical. Across its beautiful 7:04 minutes – you feel transported as he sings...tripping out in another another place. Wow is the only response. The acoustic guitar playing panned to the right speaker on "Beside You" is shockingly clear and suddenly in your face for all the right reasons. And I'm blubbing like a 2015 Chinese parent contemplating another beautiful child listening to the gorgeous "Sweet Thing" – that high-hat so clear – and the building strings too. But if was to single out just one song that shows the true beauty of this transfer – it would be the Side 1 finisher "Cyprus Avenue" – put mildly it's easily one of the most beautiful remasters I've ever heard - all that trippy music swirling around your speakers with life and passion and art - his love for Janet Planet shining through...

Side 2 opens with the mad brass and jazz shuffles of "The Way Young Lovers Do" and is followed by the glorious "Madame George" – a near 10-minute throw-over song from the Bang label sessions. It's hissy in the opening passage as I said earlier but again stunningly clear and full of presence. I've always thought of "Ballerina" as being one of the prettiest of his early songs – the Vibes, Double Bass plucks and Acoustic Guitar strums – all are enhanced. It ends on the almost Bluesy Jazz of "Slim Slow Slider" with Payne giving it some welly on the Flute – complete with its jarring abrupt ending.

The Bonus Tracks offer four fascinating full-length versions – "Beside You" has studio chatter at the start and is clearly a run-through. Even at this stage – the loveliness of the song is present – their complete "Astral Weeks" 'sound' already in place. Van's voice is in amazing form – laying into like he means it – so Soulful as he sings "...all the scrapbooks stuck with glue...and I stand beside you..." Now we reach something stunning – a full 8:24 minute take of "Madame George" – it’s sonically better than the first – the music and playing very loose. He raps different words as it fades out and the vibes ping "...dry your eyes for Madame George..." (I doubt there'll be many lifetime fans that will be able to maintain a dry eye). The album version of "Ballerina" runs to seven minutes – here the 'Long Version' gives us an extra minute and actually it feels better to me – the take just as lovely but somehow more free. In the tradition of keeping the best until last – fans may argue that's what’s been done here. The finished LP cut of "Slim Slow Slider" stops abruptly at 3:30 minutes (a deliberate decision at the time that I never liked). Here the 'Long Version' restores the track to a fade out – pushing the playing time to 4:54 minutes which gives us a more Jazzy flourish as Payne gives it some flute and Van goes into a 'glory be to him' vocal chant officially unheard until now. It's bizarre after all these years to hear the song like this – but so damn cool too..

The only whinge I might have is that even though the aesthetic feel of the gatefold card sleeve and textured booklet give it a better than bog-standard reissue feel – for such an iconic album and let's face it - one that is so utterly beloved – I’m still amazed that it hasn’t received the 2CD DELUXE EDITION treatment that "Moondance" did (a gorgeous reissue in itself – see separate review). Something this good could have been given that bit extra. Having said that I love the way it looks feels and in particular - sounds.

In retrospect the fact that "Astral Weeks" didn’t chart on either side of the pond despite it’s 'top 50 albums of all time' status has been put down to lack of singles and a dazed disinterest by Warner Brothers who simply didn't know what to do with the LP – so by all accounts – they did nothing. Well it has taken nearly fifty bleeding years to show it some proper respect – and when fans clap ears on this remaster – they’ll finally let out a sigh of relief that WB finally got it right.

"...And I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain..." – Van The Man sings on "Sweet Thing". Time has finally come to re-join the bard on his astral journey...

This review and hundreds more like it can be found in my SOUNDS GOOD Music Book Series - COOL 1960's MUSIC - Exceptional CD Remasters is available to buy/download at Amazon at the following link...

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