Album Reviews: Van Morrison - Astral Weeks and His Band and the Street Choir (Expanded and Remastered)

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Nearly half a century after it first appeared in 1968, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks remains one of the most indispensable albums of the entire rock era.

That said, it’s not really rock—more like a heady blend of jazz, folk, blues, and R&B—and it’s not perfect, either: tracks like “Beside You” and “Ballerina” can grow tiresome. But “Madame George,” “Cypress Avenue,” and the title cut, which together account for just over half of the original album, will all take your breath away. The music is moody and ethereal; it floats through the air like some magnificent dream. And the 23-year-old Morrison’s rants on life, death, and the Belfast backstreets of his native Northern Ireland sound worldly-wise and like nothing you’ve heard before.

They also sound light years away from “Brown-Eyed Girl,” his terrific but much more radio-friendly hit single from only a year before. No wonder that, as the liner notes on this reissue say, Morrison’s record label “just shook their heads…they didn’t know what to do” with Astral Weeks. Though now widely regarded as a masterpiece, the album never even made the charts.

While the music is timeless, the sound quality on the 1990 CD of Astral Weeks is not. That’s one reason to opt for this reissue (out October 30) even if you already own the album: the remastering represents a major leap forward: Morrison’s voice sounds richer, the stereo separation seems improved and the instruments are better defined. Another reason to buy the new edition is its bonus material: a first take of “Beside You,” long versions of “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider” and a fine reading of “Madame George” that prominently features vibraphone.

Also being reissued now is 1970’s soulful His Band and the Street Choir. This album arrived only about nine months after Moondance, the record that delivered Morrison to the masses, and was nearly as big a hit, thanks to spirited vocals, a tight rhythm section and highly accessible tracks like “Domino” and “Blue Money.” The album is much more mainstream than Astral Weeks and not nearly as groundbreaking or distinctive, but it is loaded with solid performances. And like the other reissue, it appears here with newly remastered sound and previously unissued alternate and early takes of some of its songs, in this case “Call Me Up in Dreamland,” “Give Me a Kiss,” “Gypsy Queen,” I’ve Been Working” and “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too.”

My only disappointment regarding these reissues is that they should have been much longer. Astral Weeks, in particular, deserved something on a par with the treatment given two years ago to Moondance—a five-CD set that included a remaster of the original album, a Blu-ray Audio version and 50 previously unreleased tracks. Astral Weeks is a more important album, but that fact apparently weighed less heavily with those assembling the reissue than the original records’ relative success in the marketplace.  

Oh, well. Maybe the label will come to its senses in time for a 50th anniversary reissue. In the meantime, I’m happy to have an upgraded CD of His Band and the Street Choir and absolutely thrilled to have a remastered, expanded version of Astral Weeks

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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