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Review: Van Morrison, “Moondance: Deluxe Edition”

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Van Morrison - Moondance BoxOver forty years after Van Morrison first declared it a “marvelous night for a moondance,” the Irish troubadour’s seminal 1970 album has become even more marvelous, ‘neath the cover of October skies.  Warner Bros. Records has afforded Moondance the deluxe treatment, adding three CDs of session material and one Blu-ray with high-resolution stereo and surround mixes to the original 10-song album.  With this truly immersive listening experience, Morrison’s third proper solo album takes its place alongside the likes of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and SMiLE and the canons of Elvis Presley, Miles Davis and even The Monkees, offering up warts-and-all sessions for enjoyment, dissection and exploration.  Of course, this compact yet lavish box set (more accurately, a linen-bound book set) wouldn’t hold up if Moondance itself wasn’t such a stone-cold classic.  Luckily, it’s an album of such depth that the 4-CD/1-BD package is more than warranted.  And for those who want just the highlights, Warner has also issued a pared-down 2-CD version as well as a single-disc remastered edition with just the original album.

Though its warmly melodic songs – equal parts jazz, folk, soul, blues, pop and rock – are certainly accessible enough to stand on their own, Moondance is an argument for the art of the album.  The artist’s Warner Bros. debut Astral Weeks was the darkness before the dawn, and its follow-up Moondance continued its juxtaposition of the spiritual and the earthbound.  But Moondance rendered those themes with light replacing dark, and an altogether different intensity.  Morrison’s crack band of Jack Schroer (alto and soprano sax), Collin Tilton (tenor sax/flute), Jeff Labes (piano/organ/clavinet), John Platania (lead and rhythm guitar), John Klingberg (bass), Gary Mallaber (drums/vibes), and Guy Masson (congas, credited as “congo drum”) brought his finely-honed compositions to life in arrangements that veered from rollicking to rootsy.  In addition to lead vocals, Morrison also played rhythm guitar and tambourine.

After the jump, we’ll delve further into Moondance!

The lyrics to virtually every song on Moondance are thematically linked, with the power of nature and the elements holding great sway over Morrison’s writing.  Water rejuvenates and revitalizes on the rootsy, soulful, horn-flecked opening track “And It Stoned Me,” and the imagery recurs on “Crazy Love” (“I’m running to her like a river’s song”).  How softly and intimately Morrison croons on the latter, with Cissy Houston, Judy Clay and Jackie Verdell adding a touch of gospel flavor.

On the beguiling title track, Morrison evokes a nocturnal, pastoral setting: “And all the leaves on the trees are falling/To the sound of breezes that blow…”  With its gentle, autumnal swing, it bears little relation to rock.  Anchored by John Klingberg’s walking bass, “Moondance” soars with plenty of breathing room for piano, guitar, saxophones and flute to meld into an intoxicating, romantic whole.  Jeff Labes’ piano solo and Jack Schroers’ alto saxophone solo became part of rock’s tapestry.  Water and wind recur on “Into the Mystic,” a mission statement of sorts for Morrison.  The lyric, as in “And It Stoned Me,” also touches on the notion of coming home.  Always an old soul, Morrison channeled something greater as he implored, “Let your soul and spirit fly/Into the mystic.”  The spirits are at play, too, in the shimmering “Caravan,” in which the radio itself becomes a primal force to bring souls together in another natural setting.  John Platania’s guitar jazzily bends around the cadences of Morrison’s voice.   The baroque-styled “Everyone,” too, is a joyous ode to the power of music.  The invitation to “sing a happy song and we’ll sing along” is hard to resist, and another prominent use of flute joined by Schroer on soprano sax contributes to the song’s unique sound.

Images of motion, sand and sea permeate “Come Running,” which also has a sweetness not always associated with Morrison’s brand of “Caledonia soul”: “By the side of the tracks where the train goes by/The wind and the rain will catch you, you will sigh/Deep in your heart/Then you’ll come a-running to me/You’ll come a-running to me.”  There’s a smile in the sound of his beloved horns on “These Dreams of You,” and that smile is ironic as the lyrics are among the most oblique on the album.  A sense of loss, regret and the bitterness of a break-up inform the song.  But the spirit of music again appears, with Morrison invoking one of his heroes, Ray Charles, in its dreamlike lyrics.  The impressionistic “Glad Tidings” is another musing (or a warning, perhaps) on interpersonal contact and expectations in a relationship.  Some have surmised that the rock-and-roll song was written about Morrison’s strained relationship with his record company; that anger hasn’t dimmed in the ensuing years.  Yet there’s still a cautious positivity or guarded optimism from the young artist on “Glad Tidings.”

The heart of Moondance just might be “Brand New Day.”  It’s a perfect summation of that moment of starting anew, of bouncing back from a fall to appreciate “that beautiful morning sun” or the “grass…so green.”  The lyric is casual but poetic as Morrison, backed again by his “girl singers” (as Houston, Clay and Verdell were credited), exults in the wonder of promise.  Morrison titled a later album A Sense of Wonder – but that would be appropriate for Moondance, too.  It’s nearly impossible to listen to the whole of the album – as, indeed, it should be experienced – and not walk away with a feeling that maybe the world is just a bit brighter or a little more romantic.

The three compact discs that join the original album offer a “you-are-there” entrance into the 1969 sessions that yielded all of the album’s songs save “And It Stoned Me,” Crazy Love,” “These Dreams of You” and “Everyone.”  In addition, there are numerous takes of two songs that didn’t make Moondance – “I Shall Sing” and “I’ve Been Working,” plus one version of a third outtake, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”  This treasure chest of discoveries wraps up with further alternate versions (Master Mix Reel Alternates) of “Glad Tidings” and “These Dreams of You,” plus mono mixes of five songs – including three distinct stabs at the mix of “Glad Tidings.”  Your mileage, of course, will vary depending on how well acquainted you are with the final album.  But for longtime fans, this is music to be savored.  The completed Moondance frequently feels effortless; these four discs give the lie to that notion, but only deepen an appreciation of the final album.

In the tradition of the jazz singers the rocker channeled on the track “Moondance,” Morrison never phrased a song the same way twice.  So there are numerous little alterations and ad libs throughout the multiple takes here that, naturally, perk up the ears.  A tempo is tweaked.  A word is changed here, a note is shifted there.  If you have the time and the inclination to give yourself over to the hypnotic grooves, there’s little danger of tedium as you step into the shoes of Morrison and executive producer Lewis Merenstein, circa 1969, for an afternoon.  The three discs are smartly arranged in mostly chronological fashion, covering the sessions of September 5, November 11, November 18, November 24, December 1 and December 11, 1969; the fourth disc backtracks to the November 8 sessions for “Moondance” and presents a handful of A&R Studios mono mixes made on December 17.

Plenty of lively studio chatter has been preserved.  After yet another abortive take of “Caravan” –the song is represented with eleven overall takes on eight tracks – Morrison mumbles, “I can’t feel nothin’ in here…there’s just nothin’ I feel at all…”  Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not said crankily, but rather matter-of-factly.  Listening to each attempt, it becomes clear how important the groove and, yes, the feel are to the singer.  The song requires from-the-bottom-of-his-soul howling, and with each take, he pushed himself and his band to get “in the pocket.”

One truly off-hand moment appears to be the loose and unfinished rendition of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”  Morrison the bluesman embodies Jimmy Cox’s lyric of the 1923 standard, originally popularized by Bessie Smith.  Though it might have been an odd choice for the album, there are certainly lyrical connections to be drawn as the song reflects on the fleeting nature of success and relationships, and how one affects the other.  Morrison’s vocal is truly effortless.  Another song that wouldn’t have quite fit in is “I’ve Been Working.”  Described on the tapes by its composer as “an old Irish folk song,” it was attempted as early as Astral Weeks.  Though it’s immediate from the first bluesy electric guitar licks to the first-take jam session that “I’ve Been Working” would have been the odd man out on Moondance, it did find a home in a new recording on His Band and the Street Choir later in 1970.  Morrison’s debt to Ray Charles is evident on this 11-minute, abrasive, occasionally cacophonous rave-up.  Take 2 is quickly abandoned, but Take 5 is another hot one, with Morrison name-checking the likes of Alfred Tennyson, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, and Hiawatha, “King of the Indians,” in his “old Irish folk song.”

The third and most tantalizing Moondance might-have-been track is “I Shall Sing,” best known in Art Garfunkel’s rendition on his 1973 solo debut Angel Clare.  Morrison and band create a joyful noise, imbuing the tune with a boisterous Latin vibe.  Jack Schroer also played saxophone for Garfunkel’s recording, which featured a similar yet different horn riff.  In addition to thirteen takes (on six tracks), the finished mono mix of “I Shall Sing” is also included.

These session takes reveal that the songs were largely completed when Morrison brought them into the studio, but there was still extensive experimentation when it came to the right style and shape of the arrangements.  The seven takes of “Into the Mystic” (on five indexed tracks) trace the song’s development, with numerous takes sans piano and horns.  Over seven tries at “Brand New Day,” you’ll hear the song without backing vocals, as well as an instrumental-only take.  “Glad Tidings” is radically different when Morrison slows down its tempo; the low-key approach strips it of its ironically jaunty bite.  Most revelatory might be the stunning if incomplete Take 22 of “Moondance” in which the band stretches out in improvisatory style, striking up a sizzling, swinging groove following Morrison’s brief vocal introduction of just the first few lines.  It follows the brief Take 21 with just the piano-bass-drums rhythm section core.  The liner notes don’t detail why there are only two takes of “Moondance” here, but one certainly is left wanting more!

The cherry on the top of this sundae is, without a doubt, Elliot Scheiner’s 5.1 surround mix.  Since the heyday of the DVD-Audio format, Scheiner has been the go-to surround guru, with titles like Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Hotel California and The Nightfly to his credit.  It might be less well-known that he was also the young staff engineer at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studios assigned to work with Van Morrison on Moondance back in 1969.  The soundscape he has created for Moondance is typically stunning.  Scheiner’s gift is for mixing discretely (i.e. clear instrumental separation, spread among the channels) without losing a realistic sense of space and placement, and that gift is on full display here.  The mix is “showy” and not subtle, but never gimmicky or forced – in other words, a perfect use of surround.  In a note he’s penned for this reissue, Scheiner writes, “I thought it wouldn’t be easy to take an eight-track master and make a 5.1 version, but it’s amazing how great it turned out.”  It’s impossible to disagree.  Scheiner’s mix is presented on Blu-ray along with the stereo mix in 192 kHz/24-bit high resolution, and he has also remastered the original album on CD to fine effect.  Brian Kehew and Wyn Davis are credited with additional mixing and mastering.

The classy hardbound book package produced by Steve Woolard and designed by Lisa Glines includes 26 pages reprinting the original LP sleeve’s offbeat story “A Fable” by Morrison’s then-wife Janet Planet, plus a fine new appreciation by Alan Light, Scheiner’s note, and numerous striking photographs by Elliot Landy.  The individual discs are housed in well-designed sleeve pages in the book.

Alas, this deluxe reissue of Moondance hasn’t been without controversy.  Van Morrison has made it clear that he views this set as more “Glad Tidings” from a nemesis, deeming it “unauthorized” and adding, “My management company at the time gave this music away 42 years ago and now I feel as though it’s being stolen from me again.”  That, of course, is the artist’s prerogative to which he’s entitled.  But, authorized or not, this is a fantabulous set capturing the magic of those nights and days when Morrison and a talented band brought the flavor of the Irish countryside to a New York studio and created a timeless musical statement.  Dedicated musos won’t want to pass up the chance for one more Moondance.

You can order the Deluxe Edition of Moondance at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

October 28, 2013 at 12:57

Posted in Box Sets, News, Reissues, Reviews, Van Morrison

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One Response

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  1. make sure to “read more of this post” alex

    alex ayers

    October 28, 2013 at 15:16

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