Posted in Album Reviews

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (Expanded Edition) (2015)

Released in November of 1968, Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s second album and first classic.  Melding together jazz, rock, and folk the album is like entering into a different world.  The lyrics read like a stream of conscience or listening to someone try and describe their dreams to you.  There were no hits here, no “Brown Eyed Girl” so the first bits of listening for most are to the actual album. The expanded edition was released in 2015 and offers different versions of four of the album’s eight tracks.

Produced in New York by Lewis Merenstein, by most accounts Van Morrison would arrive to the studio and lock himself in the isolation booth with an acoustic guitar and let the talented jazz musicians play what they felt the song needed. Most followed Morrison’s singing along with Richard Davis’ bass. Several stories indicated that Morrison was aloof and never connected with the other musicians. Much to Morrison’s chagrin, strings were overdubbed afterwards and clearly not what the singer wanted however, the minimalist style throughout Astral Weeks make the strings welcome and never overwhelm the song.

The first song is the title track and gives an introduction of what the rest of the album will sound like.  Morrison sings “If I ventured in the slipstream/between the viaducts of your dream” over a bed of folk and jazz stylings. One of several mantras, “Beside You” repeats “You breathe in/you breathe out” over spare instrumentation, mostly just an acoustic guitar that recalls the Leonard Cohen debut.

“Sweet Thing” is one of the tracks that stands out for the memorable music instead of the great singing and lyrics.  “The Way Young Lovers Do” is the shortest track here, the upbeat swinging big band number sounds more like a performance vs the personal introspection that appears elsewhere. At nine minutes, “Ballerina” is the oldest song dating back Morrison’s time with the band Them. A vibraphone accompanies the loving and tender lyrics.  A shorter run time could have made this a potential single.

Two of the featured tracks both centre around Cyprus Avenue in a wealthy area of Belfast.  “Cyprus Avenue” lyrically revolves around a remembrance of a fourteen-year girl while a younger Morrison watches from the car and is too afraid to speak.  He then imagines the girl of his dreams with ribbons in her hair being driven in a carriage by white horses.  “Madame George” features excellent violin playing and another mantra in “and the loves to love to love to love” before a fine bit of hi hat drumming towards the end of the track. 

I first really started listening to this album in January of 2019 then picked it up again recently. There is a lot to unpack on this album as it is truly an album to step into and live in for ¾ of an hour.  I’ve always known Van Morrison as an older gentleman so it is fascinating to think that all of this was conceived when he was just 23 years old. Astral Weeks is an extraordinary album that will hopefully find new fans in every generation.

10/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka (2019)

Back in 2016, we put Michael Kiwanuka’s second album, Love & Hate in our top five albums of the year. As is typical with our listening, we caught onto an artist just as a lot of other people did as well. Soon, Kiwanuka’s track “Cold Little Heart” was used as the theme for HBO’s Big Little Lies and his star continued to grow. Released In November of 2019, the Kiwanuka album placed very high on many year-end charts.

This is the second Kiwanuka album produced by Danger Mouse with Inflo. First single and track, “You Ain’t The Problem” sets the tone with its cool, retro 70s soul sound. “Living In Denial” starts with a fuzzy guitar and horn sound while “Rolling” does a similar trick with an added funky chorus and catchy drum sound.  “Final Days” is another killer percussion track that sees Kiwanuka use his falsetto to great affect in the chorus.

With minimal backing, Kiwanuka sings “When it gets hard, I will roll those sleeves” on “Solid Ground” before the spiritual strings of “Light” appears.  If we had been able to listen to this album in December, odds are it would have been in our top 5 for 2019.  It’s a beautiful and often powerful record that easily hangs tough with many of the classic soul albums of the 70s.  Timeless stuff.

8.5/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour/Further Listening 1990-1991 (2018)

Pet Shop Boys fourth album Behaviour was released in October 1990 but I did not pick up the original release until the mid-90s.  By then BritPop was in full swing and it was all “lager lager lager”.  The mature electronic songs of betrayal that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe presented here seemed out of step with other pop music when I bought it the first time around.  Co-Produced by Harold Faltermeyer, this was the release I was most interested in for the Further Listening series to see what I missed the first time around.

The first disc presents the remastered version of the original album with most of the songs touching on love but from different angles.  “To Face The Truth” is an excellent album track with genuinely moving lyrics.  “You know it hurts me when you lie, sometimes it even makes me cry, cause I’m so in love with you”. “When we fall in love there’s confusion” is the excellent chorus in “This Must be the Place I waited Years to Leave”.  “The End of the World” downplays romantic quarrels over a crisp drum beat.

The songs that pulled from here for the Discography Complete Singles Collection released in 1991 are the best tracks and a step up from the Introspective album singles that precedes them.  “So Hard” is one of Pet Shop Boys hardest driving songs as two lovers fight over whether one has started smoking again. Mostly just percussion during the verses, the synths get expansive for a few seconds when Tennant sings “tell me why, don’t we try?”   “Jealousy” was one of the first tracks the duo wrote back in 1982 and features a devastating chorus as one person sits and waits up for his/her partner to come back home again.  The true centerpiece of the album is first song, “Being Boring”.  Barely scraping into the UK top 20 at the time, it has been a firm fan favourite ever since including for this writer who used in a poetry assignment in grade 11. Updating the nostalgia of The Beatles’ “In My Life” for the HIV epidemic era, the lyrics of “all the people that I was kissing, some are here and some are missing” are particularly heartbreaking.

As with other releases in the Further Listening re-releases the second disc is devoted to different mixes of the hits and corresponding B-sides.  For Behaviour, the second disc often outshines the original album by extending “Being Boring” to nearly 11 minutes and adding a new middle section to “So Hard”.  Sweeping strings and a Beatlesque trumpet announce the beginning of “Jealousy” before it goes into the more familiar track. Also included is the 1991 cover of U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You)” that amps up the tension by extending the beginning of the track. 

The Morrissey baiting “Miserablism” was to be put on the original album but wrongly held off as it would have been one of the better album tracks and act as a perfect foil after “So Hard”. “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend” could have been a single and would have been a floor filler at clubs in the early 90s. Two versions of “DJ Culture” appear at the end as does the 12” version of “Was It Worth It” both of which made their debut on Discography. The latter fairs better but two versions of “DJ Culture” is not needed.  Better is the throbbing bassline in the Chris Lowe sung/talked “We All Feel Better In the Dark (Extended Mix)”.

Going back and reevaluating Behaviour to discover some very good album tracks is the great thing about these types of re-releases.  The Further Listening disc is the best one released thus far in the series and is at times a more engaging listen than the actual album.  The B-sides are superb and the extended versions mostly improve but never takeaway from the originals.  This was another fine release for Tennant/Lowe.

Behaviour – 8.5/10

Further Listening – 9/10

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Angel Olsen – All Mirrors (2019)

In 2016 we rated Angel Olsen’s last album, My Woman, as our favourite album of the year.  To quote part of that review, “we can’t wait to see where Angel Olsen goes next”.  We finally got our chance to hear the follow up and like Sharon Van Etten earlier in 2019, Olsen has incorporated more synths and electronics into her work along with a lot of orchestral strings.  The six minute “Lark” has a pulsating beat through the verses before the chorus roars and the second verse accuses “the way you scream like something else is the matter”.

“Too Easy” has a dreamy chorus with whispered vocals expressing that “some things happen for a reason; cancel all these plans I’m dreaming”.  “Spring” sees Olsen singing about how friends are growing older and priorities are changing to the sound of a broken carousel. First single “All Mirrors” could have been released in the early 80s with its brittle percussion and 80s synths.  “New Love Cassette” captures the best of the album’s moments with a minimal beat and synth stabs, Olsen’s voice is haunting and creates a dark/moody atmosphere.

On the flipside, “Impasse” is harsher musically and “Endgame” is a bit slow and sluggish. Better is the acoustic guitar on “Summer” that sounds a bit like First Aid Kit at their best. Olsen has always had a touch of nostalgia in her sound and that shines on tracks like “Tonight” and album closer “Chance” that sounds like a 60s torch song. In the course of expanding her sound, Angel Olsen has released another compelling album that takes several listens to uncover all that she is doing.

8/10

Posted in Album Reviews

Simon & Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966)

After Sounds of Silence was released in January of 1966, Simon and Garfunkel released Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme in October of that year. The album continues the trend of including tracks originally released on Simon’s solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook.  “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall” receives added harmonies and “A Simple Desultory Phillippic” is a much better take of the song. Whereas the solo version sounded like a harsh, angry parody of Bob Dylan; this newly recorded version sounds like a fun celebration.

A few of the tracks here would later appear on 1972’s Greatest Hits album including the classic first track “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” which melds the traditional folk tune to Simon’s “The Side of a Hill”.  “Homeward Bound” was the next single released after the “The Sound of Silence” and was a top 5 hit in the US.  This simple track was written in Liverpool when Simon was travelling around the UK and includes the cynical lyric that “all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity”.

“The 59th St Bridge Song” joy and cheerfulness has lived on in pop culture even making an appearance on the Simpsons nearly 30 years later. Set only to an acoustic guitar, the Art Garfunkel lead “For Emily Whenever I May Find Her” is a beautiful track of walking the streets and “tripping down the alleyways”. “Cloudy” was written with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers, a dreamy track about watching the clouds roll by. The harsher side of life is examined on “The Dangling Conversation” where a woman reads her Emily Dickinson and the man reads Robert Frost while their relationship crumbles.

Clocking in at less than 30 minutes, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme is like an extension of Sounds of Silence.  It doesn’t grow the duo by leaps and bounds but is a smidge better and more successful.  Interestingly, many of the tracks that were later included on the Greatest Hits appear in live versions that add even more warmth to the originals.  Several of the elements are already in place here for when Simon & Garfunkel release their next two critically lauded studio albums.

8.5/10