Sunday, November 2, 2014

19 Astral Weeks (1968) Van Morrison

1. Astral Weeks
2. Beside You
3. Sweet Thing
4. Cyprus Avenue
5. The Way Young Lovers Do
6. Madame George
7. Ballerina
8. Slim Slow Slider

Sometimes there are things that just stop me from enjoying an album. It might be the artist's reputation, it might be the production values, it might be a personal association. With Astral Weeks, it's Van Morrison's voice, which I find staggeringly unpleasant in every possible way. I'd even go so far as to say Van Morrison has the least appealing voice in the entire of rock and roll as far as I'm concerned. There is nobody on the planet whose vocal chords annoy me more. It's no exaggeration to say I'd rather listen to an actual Van than Van Morrison, even if the van in question was being gradually whittled by a team of crying children with nail files. Even the sound of metal on  rasping metal as applied by howling infants would be preferably to hearing Van Morrison sing.

In the past, when I've been presented with an album that presents a stumbling block that prevents me from appreciating it, I try and look for a way around it. Usually I go in search of cover versions to I can hear the song-writing from a fresh perspective and I can listen to the songwriting rather than the singer. That seemed like the perfect approach for Astral Weeks in which the problem was the vocalist. I wanted to know if I could enjoy the songs without having to endure Van Morrison adding every single vowel sound known to man, and even some that are traditionally only the domain of animals, in every word. Could I appreciate Astral Weeks in the hands of someone whose voice didn't remind me of a nasal-inflected impression of an air raid siren?

Thankfully I didn't have to turn to anyone else. Van himself came to the rescue. In 2012 he decided to perform Astral Weeks in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl and then release the result as a live DVD and album. I have to admit I was tentative but considering it's up on youtube I thought I'd give it a go and see what the years had done to Morrison's voice. Had the passing of time mellowed his tones and smoothed out his tendency to wail?

Thankfully I'm pleased to report the answer is yes. Unlike a lot of other artists, Morrison's voice has actually improved over time. He can still hit the notes and still has power but doesn't have the need to wander around vowels the way he used to and the nasal tones have been tempered a lot. It was odd experience: I can honestly say I suffered through 4 listens of Astral Weeks. I endured them for the sake of the blog. But I found myself quite enjoying the live rendition at the Hollywood Bowl. It's a completely different experience.

It probably helps that Van has surrounded himself with a great bunch of musicians. He plays with what looks like a jazz combo backed with a string quartet and a flautist which might sound like overkill but it really works. They're a tight unit and they really bring the songs to life. They even manage to not be totally upstaged by Van's tendency to sing all the time. Morrison has obviously decided he will wait until he's dead to be silent (although even then the sound of gases escaping from his corpse will sound better to me than his younger self singing) and until then he's going to fill pretty much every moment with singing of some kind even if it's just repeating one word a lot in a descending register as if the word in question has just thrown itself off a cliff.

I really recommend checking Astral Weeks Live out on youtube. You don't need to actually watch it. Van was never much to look at in his prime but now he's basically an overweight old guy with bad teeth in a silly hat and dark glasses. He looks like a bad Blues Brothers tribute act, but you can always have the clip playing in the background without the visuals. For me it was a way of appreciating the songwriting in Astral Weeks and enjoying the album without having to endure vocals which I will never, ever be able to appreciate.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "The customary juxtaposition of the existential with the metaphysical may lead one to believe there is more going on here than the VanMan improvising for 45m on a few of his favorite themes. "

-So juxtaposing existential with metaphysical is customary now is it? Okay.

So is this an album you could listen to for Astral Weeks or turn off after Astral minutes? Let me know below

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