Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison (November, 1968)

Dad's Take:

"If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream"...

So starts Van Morrison's brilliant Astral Weeks. To record this influential album, Morrison gathered jazz musicians who had never played together and began recording without rehearsals or lead sheets. These musicians then played as Morrison sang his impressionistic lyrics.

It sounds like this is the formula for a disorganized mess, but the result is a flowing album that is as conceptual musically as lyrically. Unexpectedly, this album comforted me as my grandmother slipped toward death over a six month period, especially early on when it looked like she would be gone within days. With lyrics about life and loss and "another land so far away, so far away, way up in the heavens, in another time, in another place," sung with Morrison's crying, emotional voice, it made me feel like everything would be okay, even though life would never be the same.

Now, I'm not particularly a fan of Morrison's voice, a combination of Jose Feliciano and, I don't know, somebody else. The biggest issue for me is that he pretty much sings every song the same. But, it works so perfectly in these songs, cascading like a poet half singing, half chanting, and half whining his poems. Yes, I know that's three halfs, but the result is something more than a whole, a brilliantly sad-yet-comforting record that dares you to do something besides stop and concentrate on what's being sung and played.

This is literary music, and yet it remains accessible. It's jazzy folk pop blues masterpiece, not quite fitting any genre but transcending them all, a creative feat that has rarely been matched. It would be pointless to single out individual songs. Although each song is distinct and unique, they meld together into a unified piece, each song able to stand alone but better for being part of the whole. I have favorites, like "Astral Weeks," "Ballerina," and "Madame George" (a rare case where a long song doesn't bore me after four or five minutes), but even those are better in the context of the entire album.

Somehow, this record had escaped my attention until a couple years ago, probably because I thought I wasn't really a Van Morrison fan. But this changed everything and on the first listen became one of my favorite records. It made me rethink my feelings about Morrison's voice, which is still not one of my favorites, but delivers the songs and their message better than another voice could. It's hard to imagine these songs sung any other way. Its influence can be heard in songs by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and countless others.

This is experimental music that worked at a time when many musicians were experimenting and many were failing. Do yourself a favor and give this one a spin, and really listen. Maybe you won't share my enthusiasm, but this should be a part of everybody's musical education. 

Brad's Take:

I've never listened to a full Van Morrison album before. In fact, I think I've only heard "Brown Eyed Girl" before now.

There are some really great songs on this album. It's obviously trying to be a bit experimental at times, but it still has enough pop and folk influence that it's easy to listen to.

Whether he's singing softly or soulfully yelling, Van's voice sounds great. He has lots of emotion in voice that makes the songs that much better.

On first listen, "Sweet Thing" was my favorite.

This review is pretty short and sweet (especially compared to my dad), but there really isn't much else to say. It's a short and sweet album, and it's very worth checking out.

"Electric Ladyland" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (October, 1968)

Dad's Take:

Electric Ladyland is Hendrix's third album of new material, and his last. With tracks like "Voodoo Chile,""Crosstown Traffic," and "All Along The Watchtower," how could this be anything but a classic?

Hendrix is at his psychedelic blues best here, with the heavy, effects-driven axe pushing the limits of what a rock and roll guitar could do. This is a double album, and the entire thing is highly listenable, full of the legendary heavy blues jams that both delight and frighten the listener.

This is 1968, which means the two-and-a-half minute pop song is long gone. The album starts with three conventional-length songs, then roars into the extended 15-minute tour de force of "Voodoo Chile." One other song tops 13 minutes. The rest are in the three to four minute range.

Hendrix could do what few others managed, however. He could go into a long jam without becoming dull by varying his playing and throwing in so many magical touches that it doesn't become tedious.

The album is weakest on the songs that feature the rest of the band, as in the "Little Miss Strange," but this record's "weak" is still pretty amazing. "Little Miss Strange" combines the mid-sixties brit-pop sound of the Hollies and the Kinks with Hendrix's inventive guitar playing, taking the song far beyond the usual conventions of the genre. Songs like that only sound weak compared to the sheer power of Hendrix's vocal and musical performances.

That was Jimi's genius. He worked in conventional musical genres like blues, rock, and even folk, but then twisted the conventions on their ear and delivered something different than anything else, ever.

There are so many great songs here that to list them all would pretty much be to provide the entire track list of the album. Instead of doing that, I'm going to turn it up and listen.

Brad's Take:

I tend to have music A.D.D. sometimes so when I saw that there were a couple of songs over 10 minutes, I kind of cringed, and when I saw that the album clocks in at just under 80 minutes, I debated about going back into hiding from reviews again or not... But I hit play anyway, and when I realized that the 15 minute song "Voodoo Chile" was almost over, I became very optimistic that I was going to be able to get through this just fine!

"Voodoo Chile" really surprised me. Making a 15 minute long song feel short is a very hard and rare thing to actually accomplish, but Jimi did it. I should have had more faith in the boy. He rules.

I agree with my old man that songs like "Little Miss Strange" are definitely the weakest parts of this album, but even though they're the weakest, it doesn't make them actually weak. It's more like The Incredible Hulk going against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70s. Obviously the Hulk would win, but Arny could still put up a decent fight back then, I'm sure. Somehow this analogy makes sense in my head so just go with it...

"All Along The Watchtower" is another great song. I've heard the original Bob Dylan version of it, but also a few different cover versions of the same song, like Dave Matthews Band's rendition (which is actually my favorite version of the song.) This is one of the only songs I can think of off the top of my head where I like the original version less than the covers. Jimi Hendrix's version is great. He makes it his own, as artists should do when covering another musician's song.

The song "1983: A Merman I Should Turn To Be" was another super long one, but this one wasn't as exciting as "Voodoo Chile" was, unfortunately. I started getting antsy by the middle of it. "Moon, Turn the Tides...gently gently away" did the same thing to me.

This album really doesn't feel as long as it actually is, which is a great feat. Instead of feeling like the 80 minutes it actually is, it felt more like 60 minutes. Still a little long, but it could have been much worse. Jimi's guitar playing really makes the album enjoyable, but the weird experimental parts of the album were a little off-putting to me.

Hopefully I'll never go back in time via a phone booth made into a time machine and get stuck in the late 60s...

"Sweetheart of the Rodeo" by The Byrds (August, 1968)

Dad's Take:

In 1968, Byrds' frontman Roger McGuinn had an idea for a concept album tracing the history of 20th Century American pop music. But after the band added Gram Parsons prior to recording the album, the concept was changed and they ended up recording a country-rock album.

The critics generally approved, but the sound was such a departure from the psychedelic folk rock of the previous albums that fans weren't as overjoyed. And the conservative country music culture didn't like these LA hippies trying to take over their music. As a result, it was the Byrds' worst-selling album to that point. In retrospect, though, it is a pioneering precursor to the country rock movement that became so popular a couple years later.

I love the Byrds, and there's plenty to like here, but it makes me miss the more typical Byrds record. Still, this is an enjoyable listen, and it's easy to see how influential it became, and why.

The album is almost a rebellious act, with the group turning their backs on the psychedelic-rock movement they had helped create, a movement that had gotten away from popular music and had become a forum for weird sonic experiments. Whether it was a conscious rebellion or not doesn't really matter.

I'd love to have seen the country western studio musicians in Nashville the day they showed up at the studio to help record a version of Merle Haggard's "Life in Prison" or Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" and saw the studio filled with hippies from L.A.

Although the style is a bit of a departure, the album is loaded with the Byrds' signature harmonies, and enough rock and roll drum behind the straight-up country to not totally offend rock ears or the rock and community. Rolling Stone reviewed it positively, as did many other reviewers.

Parsons and McGuinn clashed when McGuinn recorded over some of Parson's lead vocals, and Parsons left the band after just this one effort. But the record put his name in the mainstream and helped him get the country-rock revolution rolling. And the Byrds moved on, with Roger McGuinn as the only original band member left. They continued to record and have hit records, but they never regained the success of the original pre-Sweethearts lineup.

Brad's Take:

When I think of The Byrds, I think of their hit "Turn, Turn, Turn." I've always liked that song a lot so I was interested to listen to this album. Unfortunately though, when I got to the third or fourth song of this album, I was really disappointed so I turned it off and didn't want to go back to it or review it (hence the very long gap between reviews... sorry, pops!) Being bored at work and wanting to listen to music made me think of going back to this album and giving it a fair shot so we can get this blog rolling again. So here we go...

As soon as the first song started, I got an image in my head of boating down the bayou at night with a family of toothless people playing their respective instruments and singing to the frogs and fireflies. If I was actually in that situation, I wouldn't be able to take it seriously. I think that's why I've been hesitant to reviewing this album. Simply because it's hard for me to take it seriously. 

The whole album feels like it's one song or two songs on repeat. The songs sound so similar to each other that it's difficult to tell them apart. At least I felt that way until it got to the song "One Hundred Years From Now." This song stood out to me. It's more upbeat and rockin' than anything else before it on the album. There's no banjo, pedal steel guitar, or anything that bothered me. It's just a good 60s rock and roll song, which I appreciated. I was hoping that the songs that followed that one would be more in that style, but unfortunately it went back to the twangy country style. 

I haven't heard much by The Byrds, but I hope Sweetheart of the Rodeo is a lot more twangy country-ish than at least most of their catalog. This style of music is definitely outside of my comfort zone. I really enjoyed "One Hundred Years From Now" though so I will go back to that song.

Overall, this album is far outside of my comfort zone, but at least I got through it all this time.