Al’s Top 30 Albums – No. 4

Number 4 – Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

astral

Music journalists love categorizing things. It makes things so much easier for them. Over the years a critical cannon of the best albums of any particular genre has emerged, and is genreally accepted without recourse. If you’re talking Pop, it’s Thriller, Pet Sounds or Like A Prayer. If it’s Rock, it’s Sgt Pepper’s, Led Zeppelin 4 or Rumours. Soul’s undisputed number one is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Kind Of Blue has the jazz market cornered, just as Never Mind The Bollocks is the greatest punk album ever and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Name The Greatest Rap Disc Of All Time. These are accepted facts, just like your best centre-half ever is Franco Baresi, if you’re talking out and out centre-forwards it’s Gerd Muller or Van Basten, and between the sticks Lev Yashin or Gordon Banks is your man.

Albums like these have become part of a pantheon, a cemented twenty or so records that always end up at the top of muso’s GOAT lists and have been since the mid-eighties, usurped oh-so-rarely, only in the event of a Radiohead, Oasis or Nirvana. But this one record is always there, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ziggy Stardust and Dark Side Of The Moon. The least talked-about work in these infernal lists defies any genre, which is why it’s so difficult to evaluate, certainly it is the album on my own list here that I’ve least looked forward to writing about. I do not claim to be a music journalist, or a musician, I am merely a fan, and therefore rather than picking this album apart as a true critic would, maybe I should write about this miraculous set of songs from a personal stand point. For this is a record that connects on a personal level in a way that even the very best music rarely does.

I bought Astral Weeks from Sydney Scarborough Records down King Edward Street in Hull when I was eighteen years old, in March or April 2000. It was part of one of my pay-day splurges on CDs that I did until the revolting compulsion of illegal downloading infected me about eight years later. In the plastic bag that swang from my arm that sunny spring morning were four albums: Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello (superb), Murder Ballads by Nick Cave (silly, but brilliant), and The Man Machine by Kraftwerk (slightly intimidating at the time), and this one. Aware of its towering reputation, it was the first of the four that I played upon my return home, and as I laid back on my single bed with the Sheffield Wednesday duvet cover and loaded it into my shitty Alba Hi-fi, I had no idea that this record would become an absolute staple of my life. The first few chords seemed like an old friend ruffling your hair, and the opening couplet, “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dreams” was easily the most poetic thing I’d ever heard in a song. I let the whole album play through, as it is one of those albums, like Dark Side Of The Moon and Endtroducing, that you absolutely must listen to as a whole to truly appreciate it. The themes and images kept circling through the songs, “gardens wet with rain”, the dogs barking, the “scrapbooks stuck with glue”, I thought it was, and I still do, the most beautiful melding of words and music ever recorded.

As i spoke of in my review of Television’s Marquee Moon, certain music plays to the head rather than the heart. Astral Weeks is the exact opposite. It is music featuring an attribute so rare in a white singer: soul. Van Morrison is the greatest white male singer that has ever lived. It is important that you understand that I have used the word singer here, rather than vocalist. There is a difference between being born gifted and merely learning the craft, which is why Robert De Niro will always be a greater screen presence than say, Keanu Reeves. A vocalist is someone who learns how to sing, Morrison is someone who just pours his heart out through his larynx, often seemingly unaware that he is actually singing, chewing on words until he’s spitting the juices out. And he is accompanied by a magnificent ensemble of musicians; listen to the way that Richard Davis’ supple, almost elastic bass lines propel Cyprus Avenue, unheard in rock before or since. The astonishing jazz arrangements on The Way Young Lovers Do, a song in the same vein as Fight Song by The Flaming Lips or The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite by REM, one of such intense momentum that it is impossible to listen to without your body responding in some way; and the centrepiece, Madame George, a glorious three-chord story of a Belfast transvestite, which, even at nigh-on ten minutes, you never want to end.

I am a deeply cynical individual, and I loathe words such as transcendental, passionate, spiritual. And yet this album seems to evoke such adjectives when I listen to it. I have listened to this album at least once a month for fourteen years, and it seems to take on the role of medicine, a blanket for the soul. I would be happy to start a campaign for primary school teachers to issue it to their pupils in their final year, just so they could learn how music, above anything they will learn in high school, can strike directly into the heart.

Van Morrison was twenty three years old when he recorded this. When I was twenty three I was vomiting into a gutter down Newland Ave.

Best Tracks: Beside You, The Way That Young Lovers Do, Madame George


Best Moment:
The vocal to Sweet Thing. Like having molten happiness poured into your ears.
Like this? Try: Sea Change by Beck, 2002

profile b and wAllen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014

Advertisements

Ten Songs by Andrew Ware

Allow me to dispel a myth, when you hear people make statements like; ‘I heard Nirvana’s Nevermind when I was fourteen and it changed my life, man’ they are lying. Bold statements such as this are merely rhetoric, and I would wager that these moments of inspiration or epiphanies never genuinely take place. Something far more organic happens. We are born and at year dot we are exposed to music; be it on the radio, television or our parent’s record collections, and it bleeds into our psyche. At some stage very early in our lives we make the sub conscious decision that these strange and wonderful sounds are in some way important to us. So here are, in no particular order, ten songs that bled into my psyche and they are of extreme importance to me.

10. Steely Dan: Rikki Don’t Lose that Number
Pretzel Logic 1974
This was a favourite of my mother’s and was always on the record player on Sunday mornings. I didn’t realise how huge Pretzel Logic had been until I was much older and it’s easy to see why as this track is certainly accessible. Although Steely Dan probably fall into the genre AOR (Adult Orientated Rock) with the likes of Supertramp, The Blue Oyster Cult and Cheap Trick. Pretzel Logic, Countdown to Ecstasy and Aja have become favourites of mine. Driven by a sublimely smooth 4/4 bass line this track is perfect for when you’re tired of being confronted by your record collection.

9. Neil Young: A Man Needs a Maid
Harvest 1972
Neil Young is one of the few artists that have had a continued significance throughout my entire life. This track is the best song I’ve heard about male fragility. It begins with a rain drop piano intro and builds into a string driven masterpiece.

8. Van Morrison: Beside You

Astral Weeks 1968
People often compare song lyrics to poetry and of course this is nonsense. Lyrics are not poetry. They may at times be poetical but even the greats by such as Dylan and Morrissey are riddled with cheesy couplets and cannot be described as poetry. However, the lyrics on this truly sublime track are the perhaps the nearest song lyrics have ever been to poetry.

7. Field Music: You and I

Measure 2010
Field music are probably my favourite (relatively) contemporary act. This track is one of many I could have chosen from this record. For those aren’t familiar Field Music are like Maximo Park for adults.


6. Pulp: Your Sister’s Clothes

The Sisters EP 1993
My favourite Pulp song and a fine example of their fantastic brand of Sheffield disco pop. Pulp were a much weaker outfit after Russell Senior departed in 1996. The evidence for this is on this track as his beautifully sloppy violin accompanies a spine tingling chorus. The Sisters EP has long since been deleted but you can get this track if you buy the deluxe version of His ‘N Hers

5. Band of Horses: No One’s Gonna Love You (More than I do)

Cease To Begin 2008
This is a beautiful song. One of the more contemporary of my Ten Songs it has been catapulted into great personal importance as it was the track that my wife and I chose for our first dance when we were married in September. It was a perfect day and this is a perfect song.

4. The Dears: Ticket to Immortality
Gang of Losers 2007
Emerging around the same time as Arcade Fire, The Dears were perhaps my favourite band of this period. This is a plucky and melodic song and Murray Lightburn’s velvety vocal is, well velvety.

3. John Cale: Dying on the Vine
Artificial Intelligence 1985
This is a truly haunting song but hauntingly beautiful. John Cale speaks of being in Acapulco and trading clothing for wine and thinking about his mother. John Cale is an artist I know very little about other than that he was in The Velvet Underground and I happened upon this track by accident some years ago. When my bio pic is eventually made this track will certainly feature somewhere on the soundtrack.

2. Roy Harper: I Hate The White Man

Live at Les Cousins 1970
Harper’s Live at Les Cousins is the best live album of all time. Recorded at the intimate London venue Harper insisted that the gig was recorded in its entirety which is to the listener’s benefits as all Harper’s between song ramblings are included. Turn down the lights and it’s just like you’re there too drinking real ale in the thick clouds of blue smoke. I Hate the White Man is the stand out track from the performance and if you prefer studio recordings it’s also available on Harper’s 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk.

1. The Blue Nile: Let’s Go Out Tonight
Hats 1989
Hats is one of the many records I have to thank Allen Miles for recommending to me. This track is one of those songs that takes you back to a time and place in your life. For me this one is falling asleep against the window of a bus whilst travelling home from 12 hour shift on a Saturday evening in the winter of 2007. I would play this track on my ipod as I drove through the dark city streets debating with myself whether or not I should go out that night. This song oozes atmosphere and Paul Buchanan is quite possibly my all time favourite male vocalist.

 

wurr b wAndrew Ware is 32 years-old and has a small dog called Oliver. He is a paid-up member of the Labour Party and used to play bass in semi-legendary Hull band Sal Paradise. In his spare time he makes his own wine and watches rugby league. He once claimed his favourite album was Electric Warrior by T.Rex, which was a complete lie. He holds a degree in Philosophy, but you’d already guessed that. You can find him at http://www.twitter.com/XavierDwyer1