Tag Archives: Astral Weeks

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

OK, I’m going to try not to sound too fogeyish. No one likes that guy. But I spent a large part of a four-hour round trip down to the south coast and back today listening to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen, taking in the tapestry of acoustic guitars, the gorgeous double bass of Richard Davis and the solos for flugelhorn and trombone and wondering, why is there not more music like this? Why can’t more songs combine this level of craft and emotional honesty with musicianship this polished but empathetic to the feelings that inspired the writer?

At Seventeen is the second track on Ian’s 1975 album Between the Lines. It was produced by Brooks Arthur at his 914 Sound studio outside New York City, and it’s still revered for its sonics by those who know and care about such things. When producing this record, Arthur and his engineers treated every instrument with something close to reverence, aiming for the highest fidelity to the source sound in tracking, and producing a final mix that artfully wove together the top-notch performances given by the players, who could all play their asses off but aren’t really “names” – at least, not like the LA guys, the ones who appear in various combinations on records by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and so on.

The partial exception in that regard is Richard Davis, a double bass player who has worked for sixty years in classical, jazz and pop music, playing with Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Eric Dolphy, Dexer Gordon, Cal Tjader, Miles Davis, Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. That’s Davis’s bass on Astral Weeks.

Davis’s contributions to Between the Lines in general and At Seventeen in particular are superlative. So crucial to the arrangement is he, the song is effectively a duet for vocal and bass. He comes in at the start of the second verse, building in intensity with the arrangement, adding descending slides and syncopated fills in the upper register, weaving in and out and around the vocal, commenting on the lyric all the time. Note how the first time you really notice him is when he answers the line “desperately remained at home” by dropping to the low register and playing an ascending scale in quarter notes – a stronger, more rhythmically intense passage of playing than anything up to that moment. Hear his descending shrugs when Ian sings “they only get what they deserve”, and how slippery he becomes when she invokes “debentures of quality and dubious integrity”. Then there’s the inventive syncopation during the second half of the solo as he plays an up-and-down scalar melody to answer Burt Collins’s flugelhorn and Alan Raph’s trombone. It’s an incredible performance.

What truly amazes me about At Seventeen is how lush and layered it is, yet how none of the artistry of the musicians ever overshadow’s Ian’s vocal at any point. A competent but conservative producer, hearing the strength of the composition and the vulnerability of the lyric, would have encouraged the players to play as little as possible, sit back and let Ian’s vocal and guitar carry the song. Brooks Arthur allowed the players to play, and trusted their instincts would lead them to support rather than obstruct her voice. As a result, At Seventeen is a fabulous headphones record, one in which you can totally lose yourself, but if it comes on the radio in the car, with the road noise and the engine and all you can here is the vocal, guitar and hi hat, it’ll work brilliantly in that context, too – Arthur’s mix ensured that, for all the ornamentation and detail of the arrangement, the listener’s focus is stil squarely on the voice unless you tear yourself away to listen elsewhere.

I guess, to answer my question from the start of the post, there’s not more music like this because songs as good as At Seventeen don’t come along too often (Janis Ian has only a few more at this level: Water Colors, Jesse, maybe Stars, perhaps Hymn), and not every bass player is Richard Davis or every producer Brooks Arthur. But the space and detail and depth and precision of At Seventeen seem to me to be qualities that a lot of today’s records could use more of, especially those made by artists working in a broadly similar style to Janis Ian. In the best way possible, At Seventeen is school for all of us.

Richard-Davis
Richard Davis

Janis
Janis Ian

 

 

Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

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Streets of Arklow – Van Morrison

Rained mega-heavily this morning. I worried for a second is was going to get in through the sash windows. The joys of an English autumn! No better time, then, to go on a sodden travelogue with Van the Man.

In 1973, Van Morrison took a holiday in Ireland, having not set foot in either the Republic or his native Northern Ireland since leaving for America after Them broke up in 1967. He had by this time released his early single, Brown Eyed Girl (which to this day is still probably his defining song, tired of it though he, and many of us, may be), he’d made his masterworks Astral Weeks and Moondance, established his critical and commercial reputation in America, gone through a divorce from his first wife Janet Planet and become engaged again, and was fresh off a long tour (which would later yield a live album, Too Late to Stop Now, recorded in Santa Monica, LA and London). So the Irish holiday was a chance to recharge his batteries after a few years of sustained activity. It certainly worked in that degree; he ended up writing the bulk of Veedon Fleece during this period, and began laying down tracks in California a month later.

Beginning with Moondance, Morrison had settled into an idiosyncratic groove, creating a sound that mixed country, gospel and soul with a strong celtic feel in lyrics and instrumentation. But the albums – fine though they are, and sometimes transcendent (check out Listen to the Lion from St Dominic’s Preview for evidence of that) – lacked just a little something of the questing, exploratory jazziness that was the essence of Astral Weeks, with the majority of the tracks being conventionally structured, relatively concise songs built on a rock/R&B rhythm section. Veedon Fleece, then, as a return to the jazz-infused, pastoral and acoustic sound of Astral Weeks, was perhaps a little unexpected, even unwelcome, for those who had come to associate Van with the commercially successful sound that he had been working with since Moondance. Of his peak-era studio records, it’s consequently the least well known, the hardest to find in record shops, and least likely to be heard on the radio.

This is the casual listener’s loss, as Veedon Fleece is a masterpiece, one that feels like an attempt to be Astral Weeks on side one and Moondance on side two, an audacious ambition if ever there was one. Its first side is perhaps the best 25 minutes of music he ever assembled (Fair Play, Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, Who Was That Masked Man?, Streets of Arklow, You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River), and if it wasn’t for a couple of slightly pedestrian tracks on the second side, Van would have succeeded in his grand plan to bridge the two sides of his creativity in one record. As it is, his first two Warners records remain his essential must-buys, but Veedon Fleece should be on your shopping list ahead of St Dominic’s Preview, His Band and the Street Choir, Hard Nose the Highway and the rather drippy Tupelo Honey.

Veedon Fleece is perfect late-night autumnal listening, its tone accurately captured in the cover photo of Morrison sitting on the grass outside a house in the country near Dublin Bay with two Irish wolfhounds, the grass he’s sat on almost preternaturally green, the sky behind him threatening yet more rain. I picked Streets of Arklow as representative of the album’s sound, tone and lyrical themes, but could have picked anything off side A or one of a few songs on side B. If you’re not familiar with Veedon Fleece, track down a copy.

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Outtake from Veedon Fleece cover shoot, 1975

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?