Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Van Morrison Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

blowinyour.jpg

Blowin’ Your Mind (1967, Bang)

C +

The album’s been more or less disowned by Van Morrison in the years since, owing to label owner Bert Berns having allegedly compiled and released this disc without Morrison’s consent (reportedly, Morrison had intended this material to be spread out over four singles, rather than being released as an album), but it’s not nearly as bad as he might have you think.  It’s just very, very front-loaded, the back half mostly consisting of filler like “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” (written not by Van, but Berns himself), a cover of “Midnight Special,” and the dull blues cut “Who Drove the Red Sports Car?,” although the toe-tapper “Ro Ro Rosey” and the catchy novelty “Spanish Rose” are both fun listens. But there’s only two truly essential songs here: the slithering grooves of the near-ten-minute epic “T.B. Sheets” (about a young woman dying of tuberculosis, although the music itself somewhat masks the depressing nature of the lyric) and, better still, Van’s first – and perhaps still his best-known – hit single, the sun-kissed nostalgia of the lightly-calypso-tinged “Brown Eyed Girl,” one of the truly quintessential pop 45s of the 1960s.

astralweeks.jpg



Astral Weeks (1968, Warner Bros.)

A +

One of the most highly-regarded and influential pop albums of the late ‘60s, this disc’s reputation has unfortunately tended to overshadow the entire rest of Morrison’s catalog. Mind you, there’s reason for that – this is as fully-realized an album piece as he ever crafted, and it’s a work of stunning beauty – but, at the same time, it’s worth noting that it’s very possible to be an avid Van Morrison fan and not like this album, if only because it stands in such stark contrast to everything else in his body of work. Simply put, while this is arguably, as most critics suggest, the on-disc apex of Van Morrison, the performer and innovator, it’s not exactly the best demonstration of Van Morrison, the songwriter, at his best. Because this is such a heavily jazz-influenced album, these aren’t pop songs in the traditional sense of the word. They’re not concise (half the songs here surpass the seven-minute mark, in fact), nor are any of them terribly catchy, and most of the songs were constructed in free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness fashion, so for those only familiar with Morrison through his radio hits like “Domino” or “Wild Night” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” the album is likely to come as a very rude shock at first and seem very overrated indeed.  But, given time, the album does slowly work its charms on you, and cuts like the sweeping title cut, the wistful “Sweet Thing,” the stark “Slim Slow Slider” (consisting of just a guitar, flute, and upright bass, but no less magical for its simplicity and sparseness), and the heavy jazz kick of the brass-laden “The Way Young Lovers Do” (which sounds in danger of careening off track at any given moment but miraculously manages to stay focused) all have great appeal to the more patient listener willing to give this several spins. It’s easily the most adventurous album he ever made, and perhaps his most beautiful, but be advised that this album probably isn’t the best place to start your Van Morrison collection if you like your music to be a little more hook-laden and center more on song than mood or groove. That record would come next.

moondance.jpg

Moondance (1970, Warner Bros.)

A +

Not nearly as highly revered by critics as Astral Weeks but a much more easily approachable album, Moondance may not be as ambitious or play like quite as much of an album piece as its predecessor, but it’s arguably a better demonstration of Van Morrison’s strengths as a songwriter – the hooks hit harder, and the songs are tighter and more focused and the lyrics a little easier to wrap your head around. In short, there’s a good reason this album was more commercially successful than Astral Weeks was. What has most prevented this album from attaining the critical status of Moondance is that, like Blowin’ Your Mind, nearly all the most famous songs here are bunched together on the first side of the disc, making the latter half of the disc feel a tad anticlimactic. But, as a collection of individual songs, this is as solid a batch of material as Morrison has ever included on a single studio album, and the number of minor classics here is astounding, be it the much-covered mellow balladry of “Crazy Love,” the evocative “Into the Mystic,” the concert favorite “Caravan,” the soulful “And It Stoned Me,” the joyful “Come Running” (Van’s first Top 40 single since “Brown Eyed Girl”), and, of course, the irrepressible swing of the iconic and masterful title cut, simultaneously the most successful – both on an artistic and commercial level – of any of Morrison’s many excursions into jazz territory and one of his catchiest pop tunes, sounding for all the world like a lost standard from the Frank Sinatra songbook. This is truly a must-own for any Van Morrison fan, however casual, and sounds for most of its running time as if it could nearly be a greatest-hits disc.

hisbandandthe.jpg

His Band and the Street Choir (1970, Warner Bros.)

A  

It’s not nearly as famous as the two albums that preceded it, but His Band and the Street Choir stops only a hair short of being as enticing as Moondance and is perhaps just a track or two too long for its own good. Less jazz-influenced than its immediate predecessor, Street Choir instead delves headlong into R&B and gospel, which seems a more natural move since Morrison is, at heart, a blue-eyed-soul singer more than anything else. Van’s biggest American hit, the delightful Top Ten smash “Domino,” with its instantly-identifiable soulful opening lead-guitar lick and easily-hummable brass breaks, is here, as is a second U.S. Top 40 hit, the heavy swing of “Blue Money” (which, in contrast to “Domino,” seldom ever pops up on the radio these days for some odd reason, but is nearly just as infectious), but the surrounding cuts on this disc are actually quite underrated, be it the gospel-informed “Call Me Up in Dreamland” and “Street Choir,” the soulful “I’ve Been Working” (later covered by both Bob Seger and Bo Diddley), or the bluesy “If I Ever Needed Someone.”

tupelohoney.jpg

Tupelo Honey (1971, Warner Bros.)

A

Morrison’s most pastoral album yet (and a celebration of his domestic life with then-wife Janet Planet), Tupelo Honey (featuring such notable players as ex-Edgar Winter Group guitarist Ronnie Montrose, future Steve Miller Band drummer Gary Mallaber, Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, and future Doobie Brother John McFee) takes the R&B sound of Street Choir and injects it with a healthy helping of country to surprisingly artistically successful results. The title cut is one of Morrison’s loveliest – and most underrated – ballads, while “You’re My Woman” is no less passionate and the pastoral waltz “I Wanna Roo You” no less charming. The rave-up “Moonshine Whiskey,” in contrast, is harder-rocking and more elaborate, boasting more tempo changes than nearly any other Morrison song up to this point. The disc also contains what would sadly be the last Top 40 hit Morrison would ever have in the U.S., the infectious “Wild Night,” which would become a massive hit two decades later for John Mellencamp and Me’shell Ndegeocello.

saintdominics.jpg

Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972, Warner Bros.)

A +

Although nothing from this disc could be called a true hit per se (even the highest-charting single here topped out at #68), making this disc Morrison’s first since Astral Weeks to fail to garner a Top 40 hit, this might actually be his strongest album as a whole since Moondance. It’s perhaps not as focused as either of the previous two albums, but that actually ironically works to the disc’s advantage since it plays out like a summary of all the ground Morrison has covered since joining the Warner Brothers family. For fans of Morrison’s more concise material, you’ve got songs like the R&B-tinged “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile),” which would have been at home on His Band and the Street Choir, and the lovely “Redwood Tree,” which retains the country influences of Tupelo Honey. If you like Morrison’s more experimental material, you’ve got a trio of songs recalling the more free-form nature of Astral Weeks, including two epics that clock in at over ten minutes, “Listen to the Lion” and the synth-centered “Almost Independence Day.” Though the disc never feels quite as radio-friendly as, say, Moondance, the inclusion of cuts like “Redwood Tree” and “Jackie Wilson Said” still make the album feel a little more approachable than Astral Weeks, and Morrison does a nice job of offering up something for each element of his fan base. This had the potential to seem a little schizophrenic, but the album’s sequencing guards against that, bunching most of the more pop-friendly material together on the album’s first side and holding the more experimental cuts over towards later in the disc, making it feel like a more fully-thought-out album piece. Unfortunately, Morrison’s muse would go a bit astray shortly after, and it’d be years before he reached these heights again.

hardnose.jpg

Hard Nose the Highway (1973, Warner Bros.)

C

Reportedly intended to be a double album but trimmed back to a single disc at the label’s request, the publicly-released version of Hard Nose the Highway ends up feeling rather under-cooked, especially when compared to any of the Warner-era albums that preceded it, but it’s not the production so much as the songwriting that’s the album’s undoing. There are just eight tracks here, and two of those songs are covers (one of which is the Kermit the Frog song “Bein’ Green” from Sesame Street, and, no, we’re not kidding), while few of the six originals have particularly strong melodies. “Warm Love” (featuring Jackie DeShannon of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and “What the World Needs Now Is Love” fame on backing vocals) is a minor classic and appealingly recalls Moondance’s “Crazy Love,” and the opening cut “Snow in San Anselmo” is one of Morrison’s most underrated post-Saint Dominic’s Preview songs of the ‘70s, but beyond those two cuts, there’s little else here worth recommending and the disc ends up being his weakest overall since Blowin’ Your Mind, which, while slightly spottier than this disc, at least has a strong single in “Brown Eyed Girl,” while this disc lacks any real obvious hits.  

veedonfleece.jpg

Veedon Fleece (1974, Warner Bros.)

B +  

It’s less experimental in nature than Astral Weeks, but like that iconic album, the high esteem that this disc is held in stands in stark contrast to the amount of appeal the record is likely to actually have for Morrison’s more pop-minded fans. Simply put, Van just doesn’t sound particularly interested here in radio play (at least not on the AM stations that served as the home to Top 40 pop during the ‘70s), nor is anything here especially infectious upon first or even second listen. Rather, this is a retreat both to the pastoral nature of Tupelo Honey (“Bulbs” may actually be his most heavily country-tinged song yet) and the jazz influences of Astral Weeks (“You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River” clocks in at nearly nine minutes), and it’s also his most Celtic-influenced album up to this point (particularly the heavily Irish-flavored “Streets of Arklow”).  The stark “Come Here My Love” is quite beautiful, as is the gentle sway of the album-opening “Fair Play,” while Morrison’s falsetto on “Who Was That Masked Man” is surprisingly impressive. But, like Astral Weeks, the album’s less impressive for its songwriting per se than the statement it makes as an album piece, and some listeners may simply find it too insular to warm up to at first, although its beauty will manifest itself soon enough for the more patient listener. It’s a bit overrated, yes, but coming as it did after Hard Nose the Highway, it’s a pleasant – if not exactly commercial – step back in the right direction and is his strongest disc since Saint Dominic’s Preview, even if it stops shy of reaching that album’s greatness and masterful balance of styles.

aperiodoftransition.jpg

A Period of Transition (1977, Warner Bros.)

B

Usually derided by critics, it’s true that the title of this Dr. John-co-produced disc is a somewhat apt description (Van hadn’t made a record in nearly three years – an unusually long hiatus by his standards – and was naturally trying to figure out how to regain his footing and move forward, particularly amidst a changing musical landscape, largely jettisoning the more pastoral sound of Veedon Fleece and reverting to the more R&B-oriented sound of His Band and the Street Choir), but the album (while much too brief, containing only seven songs for a combined total of less than thirty-four minutes of music) is a bit more commercial and less insular than Veedon Fleece and the material is stronger than most of Hard Nose the Highway. While there are no hits or any major classics here, there are many minor delights throughout, especially “Heavy Connection,” the joyous “It Fills You Up,” the gospel-infused “The Eternal Kansas City,” and “Flamingos Fly,” which Morrison had previously given to Sammy Hagar for the former Montrose (and future Van Halen) lead singer’s first solo album. It may be a mere warm-up for Morrison’s commercial and artistic comeback the following year and its brief running time and transitional nature may make it less of a successful album piece than its predecessor, but, taken as a collection of individual songs, the album is much more appealing than its reputation may suggest and tends to be undervalued, especially by the same critics who overrate Veedon Fleece.