Van Morrison’s Wavelength, Common One, and Rich Catalog

Last night I mentioned that I am going through a bit of a Van Morrison phase.  My friend Trey introduced me to this song.  It is one that, even though it appeared on one version of a greatest hits, is not as well known as many of his others.  It is sort of a strange song for Van Morrison as the production is more synthetic than a great deal of his work.  There are synthesizer noises, handclaps, distorted electric guitar, etc.  I half wonder if there was cocaine on the mixing board.  One of those songs that makes you wish you were flying down the highway with a doobie in a convertible, flying high like a mutant.  A song to lift the spirits. I haven’t seen it available in any online retailers lately.  But if you love pop music and Van Morrison, this is one that absolutely demands seeking out.

I also want to mention, as I don’t want to tie up my blog with too many Van Morrison posts, that if you are a fan of his more sprawling work, such as Astral Weeks, that you should check out his 1980 album Common One.  And although Van Morrison is too much of a soul singer to not come up with brilliant melodies, there is definitely a strong jazz influence on this album.  The last song in particular recalls moments of the Miles Davis album In a Silent Way.

Van Morrison has a rich a deep catalog, but somehow many people are only aware of his greatest hits, or classic albums like Moondance and Astral Weeks.  With his last album, 2012’s Born to Sing: No Plan B, an album that featured lyrics that were often about the state of the world, he keeps putting out exceptional work that deserves a large audience.

My original blog post stated that their were soul horns in Wavelength.  Although they are there in the background of the song near the end, they are nowhere near as prevalent as I imagined.  This error was the result of a slipshod memory!  

Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle Review

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A really beautiful album that I’ve been completely awestruck by lately is Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle.  It’s one of those albums that is overlooked, not only greatly by the general public, but also within Johnson’s career itself.  Johnson is an Austin musician that is most thought of as a guitar hero for his tasteful yet often extremely technical playing.  He is most famous for his album Ah Via Musicom, an album that won a Grammy and launched three instrumentals into the top 10 for the first time since the 60’s.  (That album came out in 1990.)  Although I hadn’t listened to much of Johnson’s work before recently, I used to have his most popular album and bop around the house to the instrumental Cliffs of Dover when i was 12.  As great as Ah Via Musicom is, its follow up Venus Isle is a truly extraordinary piece of work that is unique even within Johnson’s own career.

Venus Isle is an extremely elegant and regal album.  It has a psychedelic otherworldliness that is very dreamlike.  What makes it unique in Johnson’s catalog is that it doesn’t shift styles in the same way that his other albums do, at least not as overtly.  Some songs bleed into others and the whole album feels like a complete piece.  I almost feel like listening to any one track does not do the album justice.  The album is also as much about texture as it is about songs or individual parts.  Although the guitar playing on it is exceptional, it is often not showy in the way that one thinks of when they think of the term guitar hero.  This album also has more vocals than any other Johnson album except for maybe Tones, his debut.

The album sounds like a combination of Prince’s Purple Rain or Jimmy Hendrix’s Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) crossed with the moody likes of the Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine.  That description is really only a jumping off point.  There are even more styles and moods stirred into the pot, but I think that initial description will give you some idea of the overall feel of the record.

Johnson is often called a perfectionist, and one of the biggest criticisms lobbied at him is that his work is too slick.  I think if you were going to judge this record only by rock standards you could maybe make that criticism.  Although this album is rooted in rock n roll, it is played with the precision of a jazz musician and almost at times appears to have classical aspirations.  Every piece feels perfectly sculpted.  If the Rolling Stones created ragged earthy paintings out of blood and dirt, this album is more like a marble sculpture.  I think one can hopefully appreciate both kinds of things.  If you are open to it, this is a really beautiful thing to behold.

Johnson dedicated the album to his ex-girlfriend who was killed during the making of the record.  Although it seems as if this album was well underway when that tragic incident occurred, although I can’t be 100 percent sure of the timeline, there is something about this record that reminds me of an epic poem or symphony that is trying to communicate the beauty of a lost love.  Although this album, at the time of its release, was no doubt modern music, and there is even something forward looking about it in the way that it seems like it is trying to communicate a new language, I can’t help but feel that it also seems part of some ancient past.

Johnson’s voice is light and mellow, and it is low enough in the mix that the lyrics are often hard to discern.  I find his voice pleasant enough, but it does not alone have a quality that, were it not surrounded by beautiful music, that I would necessarily seek out for itself.  I think the way it is used on this record, and on certain other things that he has done, it as another tool used to create emotion in the context of the larger piece.  On work this personal I would always want to hear an artist sing their own words than use someone else’s voice.  His voice perfectly fits into the larger aesthetics of the piece.

This is the perfect kind of album to put on at sundown and slip away into a dream to.  A unique moment in music is created, one that even Johnson never tried to repeat himself.  I know that there are those that look for more edge in music that would judge this for being too perfect, too slick, too painterly, but they would be using the wrong metrics.  I think nothing is more important then for an artist to create that one emotional moment that is true to themselves, that doesn’t look for any confirmation other than whatever light they have guiding them.  I think on this record Johnson achieved that.  The record was a commercial failure, but here it is after all those years, not in the least representative of its time or any other, still living on its own terms.

Here is an interesting piece in the Austin Chronicle from 1996 about Johnson just as he was about to release this record:

Eric’s World: The Many Fantastic Colors of

A Question For My Readers: How Do I Learn About Jazz?

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I have a question for all of my musically informed readers.  I don’t know shit about jazz.  Where do I begin?

I have long wanted to understand jazz.  However, i was not raised on it.  It is such a large topic, and I understand so little about the form, what is good and what is bad, even what is the difference between the styles of jazz, that I don’t even know where to begin.  It’s like if you discovered China.  It is so big and foreign and new to you, that it is kind of intimidating.  Where does one even begin?

About a year ago I felt the same way about classical music.  However, I found a good book that explained the different kinds of classical music and gave introductions to many of the different styles and important pieces throughout the years.  Through Amazon deals I was able to acquire a pretty decent classical library for cheap.  There is still a great deal I have to learn about classical music, but I at least have enough of a basic understanding of its history to walk through the door and begin picking things I like.  I still can’t tell a good performance from a great one, but I can at least begin to form opinions about what kinds of classical music moves me.

I have two Miles Davis records.  I have Kind of Blue and In a Silent Way.  That is the extent of my jazz library and knowledge.  I like both of those.  Other than that I am completely ignorant of the form.  Is there a kind of book that discusses, in a musical way, the history of jazz?  Like I don’t want to read just stories of jazz musicians.  I don’t need to read about Miles Davis doing heroin.  I want a book that actually explains the music and why something was important or innovative?  What are different pieces trying to communicate?

Also, what are some of your favorite jazz records?

If you would rather talk to me in private that’s fine.  I have to approve each comment before it is made public.  You can send me your thoughts, your email address, and if you don’t want your comments made public, just state that.

I would be eternally grateful if anyone can show me the light.  Help make 2015 a year when my dumb ass finally learns to love and appreciate what millions of people already understand.  Lead me from the land of ignorance into the land of enlightenment!

All I Ask For In Music

I absolutely love music.  It is not only my job, but also my hobby and religion.  Anyone that travels with me will tell you that I wear headphones around the clock.  Occasionally this is self preservation, a way to disconnect,  but mostly I just can’t listen to enough albums. 

As long as music seems authentic, I’m a fan.  I don’t care if it is Richard Wagner or Slade.  I love trashy garage rock and sophisticated jazz.  I like Frank Sinatra and Jeff “Stinky” Turner.  I love Motown love songs and Lou Reed’s Edgar Allen Poe influenced album The Raven.  In pop music I am a fan of singers first.   I need to connect in some way with the singer.  I need to feel they are singing with their soul and not just copping someone else’s bit off of the radio. 

Sometimes people think I am a music snob, because I’ll slag off this or that, but I really am open to so many different kinds of music.  I am just passionate about this stuff.  Even if civilization broke down people would still be singing something and banging out rhythms,  even if it was just on a trash can.  You can tell so much about someone just by the way they sing. 

I am reading John Lydon’s new biography, Anger is an Energy, and he is talking about how these TV shows like American Idol and X Factor are ruining singing by making it too much about singing correctly.  He says they are basically making pop stars out of cruise ship singers.  Singing really should be about nothing more than communicating some kind of strong emotion. 

I can’t listen to most of modern radio.  Autotune, unless it is used as an effect to purposely make a voice sound robotic, is killing music.  It takes some of the humanity out of people’s voices.  Life isn’t perfect.  Pain and sadness and even happiness are complicated.  Sometimes a great a singer like Sam Cooke can convey how you are feeling, and sometimes it is James McMurtry with his dry monotone delivery.  Paul Westerberg hits bum notes sometimes, but he always gets the emotion of something dead on.  There are no rules. 

I love intellectual music, but music doesn’t need to be intellectual.  It just needs to be emotional.  So much of what is out there is just vanilla emotions.  There is no pain or sadness or joy.  There is just the imitation of life, sometimes with convenient product placements in tow.  It is the song as lifestyle brand. 

Music should open doors, not close them.  As soon as music becomes too tribal, I am out.  “I am driving my truck and waving the flag because that is what a real American does.”  Fuck you!  “Look at all these things I own that you don’t.”  And fuck you too! 

Tell me how you feel and what you think.  Be complicated.  Don’t parrot someone else’s emotions or thoughts.  Be yourself.  When I plug in my headphones, that is all I ask. 

Mary Coughlan and The Whore of Babylon

Mary Coughlan is an absolutely exceptional singer that I have luckily stumbled upon.  The above video is her performing the classic song Magdalen Laundry live.  She is an Irish singer that usually tackles jazz or blues.  If I am being honest, I prefer when she sings more melodical songs, like the one above, or Sleep On It and Your Angel from her excellent album Whore of Babylon.  I also love when she goes batshit crazy such like in title track from Whore of Babylon or the song Antarctica from that same album.  This is all a matter of taste as I’m not a big listener of traditional jazz, especially.  However, even I can tell that she sings jazz and blues with complete authority.  Her phrasing is impeccable and when she goes for the high note, like in Your Angel, it can send chills down your spine.  She is the kind of singer that makes you believe she is living each song while she sings it.  There is a rasp in the back of her voice that sounds like a thousand cigarettes and a thousand bottles or booze.  It is the kind of sound that no TV pop idol could ever hope to achieve, unless they too are willing to go through the looking glass of life.  A great deal of her work is hard to obtain in the U.S. unless you are willing to buy import CD’s.  However you can get The Whore of Babylon and several other albums of hers at digital retailers in here.  She is the real deal.  An fearless artist that sings unflinchingly staring into the abyss.