Prince – “The Gold Experience” (1995)

September 15, 2008 at 12:22 pm (Prince, Reviews & Articles)

A Rolling Stone review by Carol Cooper from Nov. 2, 1995. This was probably Prince’s best album of the 90s, as well as his most underrated. It should have been a lot bigger than it was. The fact that this was during Prince’s “The Artist”/symbol days might have something to do with it. Time to rediscover this great album…


With this LP, our former Prince turns in his most effortlessly eclectic set since 1987’s Sign O’ the Times. As his fourth album since rock’s most quixotic auteur baptized himself with a name only dolphins and extraterrestrials can pronounce, The Gold Experience is surprisingly retro in sound and attitude. Longtime fans will recognize signature riffs from Purple Rain, 1999 and Controversy, as well as customized appropriations from glitter rock, the Ohio Players, art rock and the kind of quirky narrative poems Prince perfected upon the release of Graffui Bridge.
Guiding the listener from track to track is the multilingual chatter of a feminine cyborg first deployed on the ex-Prince’s interactive CD-ROM from last year. One of her first declarations – in Spanish – is that Prince has “died” so that the New Power Generation may live. But who are the NPG, really? Although The Gold Experience enjoys the services of some very tight, skillful musicians (not the least of whom are the folks who compose the horn section from the old Paisley Park act Madhouse), all you really hear is the heart, soul and mind of our once and future Prince.
In case you’re wondering, all his classic contradictions are still firmly in place. On the poppy political broadside “We March,” he cautions men not to call women bitches, then a few tracks later breaks his own commandment in the anti-love ditty “Billy Jack Bitch.” On “I Hate U,” the soulful first single, he sings, “I hate you…. ’cause I love you, girl,” which sums up the Princely persona in a nutshell. He loves his women and his colleagues, but he can’t allow them a dominant role in his life or his work. He loves the perks of stardom but has gone out of his way to reduce his own public profile to that of a virtual unknown. Add to all this a long-standing fascination with paradox, irony and subtle parody, and you get The Gold Experience in all its contrarian glory.
Like Michael Jackson, our erstwhile Prince has plenty to scream about, but he’s nowhere near as dour about it as Elvis Presley’s son-in-law. Instead he tries to have as much fun as possible while following his own schizoid genius as it dances along the precarious divide between the sacred and the profane.
As usual, the attempts at rap come off as part satire and part celebration of the form. The gutter feminism of “Pussy Control” is earnestly phrased in the goofy syntax of the butt-loving Sir Mix-a-Lot, while the rabblerousing lyrics of “Now” are delivered in the twangy drawl of Arrested Development’s Speech. But the most powerful revelation among this grab bag of edgy rhythms and melodies comes during the deceptively gentle “Shy.” Its rhythm track recalls the imaginative noodling of “Kiss” leavened with the melodic idiosyncrasies of a Joni Mitchell ballad but leaves a more indelible impression than either. The male protagonist of “Shy” lands alone in Los Angeles and starts wandering the town in search of, well, poetry in motion.
This scenario was played out before in songs like “Head” and “Uptown,” but, oh, what a difference a decade or so makes! Back in the Dirty Mind era, the main thing on a Princely woman’s mind was sex. But the virginal Los Angeles riot grrrl encountered in “Shy” is more inclined to brag about the men she killed than about the men she bedded – yet one more apocalyptic sign of the times we live in.

Carol Cooper

Permalink Leave a Comment

Prince – “Hot Wit U (Nasty Girl Remix)” (1999)

September 15, 2008 at 11:59 am (Music, Prince)

This remix features Prince singing some of the lyrics for the song “Nasty Girl” that he had written for Vanity 6 back 1982. Interesting…

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Eagles – “The Long Run” (1979)

September 15, 2008 at 11:57 am (Reviews & Articles)

Timothy White’s critique of The Eagles’ final album (until last year’s The Long Road Out of Eden). Written for issue #304 of Rolling Stone – Nov. 15, 1979…

 

By day, the stardom-obsessed City of Angels depicted on the Eagles’ The Long Run is a dreary land of blank vistas and empty promises, baking slowly under an unsentimental sun. But when the night comes, the landscape is suddenly infested with mad shadows: inky, menacing configurations that provide an ominous depth. Unbridled by reality, this is the time when desperate dreams emerge from their lairs. Such dreams stalk the back streets, bistros, board rooms and bedrooms where the deals for success are struck — and then metamorphose into nightmares.

The Long Run, the Eagles first album in three years, is a chilling and altogether brilliant evocation of Hollywood’s nightly Witching Hour, that nocturnal feeding frenzy first detailed by Warren Zevon on his haunting Asylum debut (Warren Zevon, 1976) and the equally powerful Excitable Boy. Both Zevon and the Eagles have employed the desperado and the ghoul as antiromantic symbols of the star caught in the devil’s bargain. And both eventually came to realize that they had to give up the guise of observers and confess their roles as participants.

The Eagles live and thrive in a town where rock & roll is the foremost fame machine. Commercially, they’ve risen as high as a band possibly can, and yet, as individuals, they still have trouble getting in touch with a girlfriend, with any true comfort or satisfaction, with their own dreams. Their backyard is a thicket of fast cars, witchy women, outrageous parties and wasted time, so their perspective on the maw is doubtlessly an informed one.

Since their first LP in 1972, the Eagles have been adept at portraying the dark side of stardom, the sordid milieu of its beneficiaries and the various modus operandi used to secure notoriety. From Eagles‘ “Chug All Night,” “Most of Us Are Sad” and “Take the Devil,” through all of Desperado, to “James Dean” and “Good Day in Hell” on On the Border and the title tracks of One of These Nights and Hotel California, the themes of evil exhilaration, dissolution and despair that attend tinseled glory were relentlessly hammered home. These recurring themes finally reached their apex in the song whose title has since become synonymous with high living and self-destruction: “Life in the Fast Lane.”

On first listening, The Long Run seems a modest, flawed project that’s virtually devoid of the gloss, catchy hooks and flashy invention that typified earlier Eagles records. The title tune sets an unambitious tone: the group lopes along in a familiar country-rock framework, singing about youthful hopes and the virtues of tenacity. But it slowly becomes apparent that the “long run” is a metaphor for a host of secret concerns and passions that are either career- or relationship-oriented. What starts out as a mildly encouraging number about hanging in there ends up a grim homily on the solitary pleasures of flirting with the precipice:

 

Did you do it for love?

Did you do it for money?

Did you do it for spite?

Did you think you had to, honey?

 

This is the lament of a seasoned veteran of the star wars, a lover who’s both hardened and accusatory, asking questions to which he already knows the depressing answers. The cards have been dealt and played, and all that remains is to tally the terrible cost: “Who is gonna make it/We’ll find out in the long run.”

Overall, The Long Run is a synthesis of previous macabre Eagles motifs, with cynical new insights that are underlined by slashing rock & roll. There’s a stark simplicity to the album, especially when compared with the hyperslick Hotel California. Not a collection of hot car-radio singles. The Long Run is easily the band’s most uncommercial effort. Vocally, instrumentally and lyrically, the Eagles’ trademark of coy cleverness has largely been replaced by a raw, direct approach. The songs are of a piece, each one complementing and building on the other in a saga that blends the internal sensibilities of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with the external textures of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. The total effect is shattering.

“I Can’t Tell You Why,” the LP’s second track, fleshes out the callous courtship introduced in “The Long Run” and describes the pitfalls of couples “who lived through years in the dark.” Though the tone is tender, the singer offers no solution to the problem of why he and his partner are “up all night, tearing our love apart.” Newcomer Timothy Schmit’s vocals have the same pleasingly plaintive quality he brought to Poco, but the old urgency has turned ghostly, elusive. In the background, an eerie synthesizer hovers over a repetitious yet enticing guitar riff, and you get the creepy feeling that you’re being lured into an abyss.

This central sense of doom is further reinforced by Joe Walsh’s “In the City,” a brittle but forceful rocker (which appeared in a different version on the soundtrack of Walter Hill’s The Warriors) that cooks up a heroic vision of the possibilities outside the urban labyrinth. Unfortunately, as Walsh sees it, “there’s nowhere else in sight.”

“In the City” provides a neat segue into two of the Eagles’ finest compositions, “The Disco Strangler” and “King of Hollywood.” “The Disco Strangler” is a shrill, severe portrait of desperate living stretched to the snapping point. Paced by an unhurried bass drum that thumps like predatory footsteps in the darkness, this cut is coarser and more grating than anything these musicians have ever recorded. All vestiges of their customary precision and prettiness are ripped away to reveal the bare wires. The guitars are metallic and violent. They leap out with thick, sharp thrusts, while the fearsome braying of Don Henley rises above the riveting tumult. This is rock & roll that’s calculated to make your hair stand on end. It’s also a telling exploration of the strutting hedonism at the center of the Hollywood success ethos. “The Disco Strangler” resonates with savage accuracy.

 

Lookin’ for the good life

Dressed to kill

She don’t have to worry ’cause there’s

Always someone else who will

Loose and loaded every night

Dancin’ underneath the flashin’ light

Sayin’ “Look at me baby, look at me

I’m beautiful, I’m beautiful, I’m somebody.”

 

Lurking on the fringes of such lavish confusion is the dirty, nameless little ingredient that’ll kick the legs out from under your illusions. He’s the one figure that the dancer seeks to avoid. And the very audience she’s been so willfully attracting all along.

 

He’s the crimson in your face du jour

The fiddler in your darkest night

He’s the melody without a cure.

 

When the fury subsides, the latest victim has been discarded and the town returns to business as usual.

Another transaction on the casting couch is being lined up in “King of Hollywood.” The delicate, clipped vocals by Henley and Glenn Frey capture all the sickening heartbreak of the moment:

 

Come sit down here beside me honey

Let’s have a little heart to heart

Now look at me and tell me darlin’

How badly do you want this part?

 

Side two begins a new cycle of fast-lane histrionics. In “Heartache Tonight,” we’re treated to glimpses of the rollicking insensitivity in the constant blowouts that now pass for fun. “Those Shoes” dissects the ever-present limousine lovelies, certain overanxious career women who ride the razor’s edge between sycophant-socialite and slut. Here, the hissing singing style is intensely effective as the ladies ply and are plied with “tablets of love.” “Teenage Jail” and “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks” heighten the whole grotesque maelstrom, with angry vocals and chain-saw guitar accents that belittle the concept of rock as a saving grace in this or any other void.

The Eagles have always been imaginative albeit sometimes gimmicky guitarists, but on their last three albums (not counting Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975), they’ve broken new ground, exploring the tonal and coloristic possibilities of their aggressively stagy sound. They’ve also been much influenced by Joe Walsh’s skillful use of silences, employing his spacious, stinging guitar leads as a dramatic device and breaking the rhythm section’s output into tight, percussive statements. Within this framework, the introduction of any new element—a voice, a horn, a drumbeat — becomes a pivotal flicker of life: e.g., the introduction of a hi-hat in “The Disco Strangler” startles like the first vicious rattle in a snake pit.

“The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks” is the explosive last binge. The Long Run closes with “The Sad Café,” a dirgelike hymn to the Troubadour, the legendary Los Angeles saloon that sheltered the Eagles and so many of their cohorts in their scuffling days, providing a stage on which they could express themselves, and a bar at which they could forget themselves.

The Long Run is a bitter, wrathful, difficult record, full of piss and vinegar and poisoned expectations. Because it’s steeped in fresh, risky material and unflinching self-examination, it’s also the Eagles’ best work in many, many years. There’s none of the tacky, Twilight Zone posturing that marred Hotel California, and the boisterous innocence of the group’s “Take It Easy” era is now far too distant to retrieve. Instead, we’re offered a well-crafted message that’s just as arrogant and probably a whole lot more honest. Wrapped in black cardboard, The Long Run is an invitation to a funeral, a thoughtful interment of the past.

Clustered around the bar in the Sad Café, the Eagles admit that the long run was never a roll of the dice as much as a conscious attempt to outrace their demons. It seems that the drive for success is a kind of black hole in the center of the soul — a black hole that sucks in and devours most of the feelings, generosity and commitment that could have been saved for friends, lovers or oneself. Great courage is needed to face up to this, and it takes a lot of experience to make an album this strong. But the next step is surely the hardest of all. As Don Henley intones near the end of the last tune:

 

Now I look at the years gone by

And wonder at the powers that be

I don’t know why fortune smiles on some

And lets the rest go free.

Timothy White

Permalink Leave a Comment

Betty Davis – “Betty Davis” (1973) and “They Say I’m Different” (1974)

September 15, 2008 at 3:16 am (Reviews & Articles)

This article came out on the PopMatters website and was written by Dan Nishimoto – May 19, 2007. Betty Davis is the former Mrs. Miles Davis, who made some great, underrated funk-rock albums in the mid-70s and then unfortunately disappeared after that. Definitely worth checking out though…

 

Spring 2007 has been an especially notable time to recognize women. Two major feminist art exhibitions opened—Global Feminisms at Brooklyn Museum and WACK! Art & the Feminist Revolution at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—while Judy Chicago’s iconic piece “The Dinner Party” was permanently reinstalled (also at the Brooklyn Museum). Hillary Clinton broke records and raised over $26 million dollars for her 2008 presidential campaign. And Oprah Winfrey convened a major town-hall meeting to address sexism and misogyny in hip-hop with international icons like Russell Simmons, Dr. Ben Chavis of Hip Hop Summit Action Network, and emcee/Gap model Common. Yet, in spite of such notable acknowledgements in the public sphere, a major omission was made. A mover and (ass-)shaker of funk was left in her quiet suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Who’s that, you ask? It’s Betty. Betty who, you ask? Betty Davis.

The truth about Betty is that she’s like anyone else in that there are two ways to know her: you know about her, or you know her. Before we explore either of those paths, here are some primers: Betty Mabry Davis was born on July 26, 1944 in Durham, North Carolina. When she was young, her family moved to Homestead, a small town outside of Pittsburgh known mostly for its post-wartime steel industry boom. Betty demonstrated a penchant for the arts at an early age, having written her first song “Bake That Cake of Love” at age 12; perhaps this was a reflection of her life-long immersion in music, particularly the blues. However, she was also bright from the jump, skipping a grade and graduating early. At 16, she left for New York City to study clothing and design at Fashion Institute of Technology. She made ends meet by working a host of odd jobs, and attending classes at the American Musical Dramatic Academy. Her stunning appearance and acting skills paid off as she became one of the few international models of color—at the prestigious Wilhelmina agency, no less—and was offered a part in a touring production of Hair. In short, her resume soon reflected a bright and curious soul. However, much of Betty’s mythology begins at this point; and what better place and time than New York City in the mid- to late ‘60s.

Before she even became Betty Davis, Betty was an icon in the city’s nightlife. Numerous musicians of the day anecdotally recall Betty for being a member of a captivating social clique, the Electric or Cosmic Ladies. Not to be confused as a groupie, these same musicians stress that Betty was an exceptionally clean and sober woman who was more interested in discussing music, than dealing in sex, drugs, and the such. Perhaps this drive and empathy helped Betty convince the Chambers Brothers to record her song “Uptown” immediately after a chance meeting in 1967; fortunately for the group, the song soon became one of its signature tunes. She later befriended Jimi Hendrix, dated musicians like South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Santana percussionist Michael Carabello, Eric Clapton, and Robert Palmer, and befriended Marc “T-Rex” Bolan. Her networking savvy gifted her with her own uptown club, her first record (a single called “Get Ready for Betty”), and her close friend (and longtime girlfriend to Jimi Hendrix) Devon Wilson. As quickly as Betty embraced the talent of her day, they seemingly responded in kind.

As star-studded and dazzling as Betty’s back-story appears, it pales in comparison to her connection with Miles Davis. A result of another chance meeting, the two were wed in 1968 after a brief courtship. The passion between the two was clear to anyone around the couple as Betty literally remade Miles’ image during their short year of marriage: she changed his wardrobe, and introduced him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, which undoubtedly inspired him to turn to fusion (even the title to his signature album Bitches Brew was changed from his original, comparatively passive Witches Brew under Betty’s counsel). Though Betty served as Miles’ muse, showing up on the cover of his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, and in such songs as Kilimanjaro‘s “Mademoiselle Mabry” and 1981’s “Back Seat Betty,” the marriage ended poorly as evidenced by Betty’s painful recollections (suggesting abuse) and Miles’ dehumanizing depiction of her in his autobiography (he accused her of infidelity with Hendrix, a claim she and her friends have repeatedly denied). While the relationship relegated Betty to a support role, it also served as the catalyst to create the Betty Davis everyone should know.

In 1973, Betty made contact with Just Sunshine, an upstart label based in the Bay Area, and secured resources to record an album. In spite of the fact that she was not a professional musician in the conventional sense (she had only studied music through her peers and had a couple recording sessions under her belt), she convinced her then paramour Michael Carabello to reach out to the Bay’s finest to assemble a band for her debut. Carabello acquiesced production duties to his friend and Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, who assembled the group. The result snowballed into a who’s who of international-level stars. Errico already had an ongoing jam session with former band-mate and Graham Central Station leader Larry Graham and Santana and future Journey guitarist Neal Schon, so the three formed the core of Betty’s band. Asking around further, Errico (a novice producer, mind you) secured a “mind-bottling” support cast, including keyboardist Merl Saunders, the Tower of Power horn section, the Pointer Sisters, and Sylvester. Though the personnel vary from track to track, Davis holds the album together with a peerless performance.

Betty Davis’ self-titled debut is funk like no other. Its closest musical relation is Sly Stone’s early ‘70s molasses—deliberate, moist, and bizarre in substance—but where he often buries his voice within the arrangement, Betty kicks the mic stand over and demands your attention. Though her vocal technique is admittedly lacking (in the words of Graham Central Station member and album back-up vocalist Patrice Banks, “She couldn’t sing”), she carries the album in two ways. The first is through sheer performance. As her band rumbles and thumps out funk-rawk, she coos lines like, “I know you could have me climbin’ walls / So, that’s why I don’t want to love you” on the anthemic “Anti-Love Song.” On the Graham Central Station-style slapper “Come Take Me,” she channels throatzilla and rip-roars over the track. Seemingly raw and spontaneous, Betty’s ownership of the material reveal her to be calculating and confident. This leadership makes the music, as the band alone would only appeal to musicians and appreciators of genre-busting jams; with Betty, the music becomes a slow cooker of unbridled lust that teases and passes each beat, and flicks and licks each chord.

As if this isn’t enough, Betty takes the music over the top with her explosively unapologetic songs. Titles like “Your Man, My Man” and “You Won’t See Me in the Morning” lack subtlety about subject matter, but swagger with a confidence and bravado previously exclusive to men. Betty frequently reverses gender roles and expectations to demonstrate control and strength that could even knock Tura Satana off her feet. In this sense, “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and “Game is My Middle Name” unconsciously seize the spirit of second wave feminism by equalizing depictions of an independent woman.

Betty wasted no time and followed up her debut with the aptly titled They Say I’m Different the following year. The album is equally noteworthy for her increased command as she took over the producer’s reins. In a bold move, she assembles a completely new band of unknown musicians; a handful of stars still stop by to assist, including Buddy Miles on guitar and Headhunters drummer Mike Clark, but their roles are mostly cameos. The new group reproduces the first album’s sound competently, albeit with more of a blues turn. However, the band is once again the backdrop to Betty’s writing, which becomes more personal. In a rare glimpse of her non-stage personality, Betty embraces her upbringing on the autobiographical title track, and pays homage to her heroes (“Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Son House… and Bessie Smith!”) to make sense of her identity. She also displays a growing ability to connect her struggles with those of her peers, artistic and otherwise, such as her defense of a prostitute’s dignity on “Don’t Call Her No Tramp”—“You can call her… an elegant hustler, but don’t you call her no tramp.” Betty still exhibits little subtlety or restraint, as “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him” continues the first album’s outlandish sexual antics, and “He Was a Big Freak” describes Jimi Hendrix’ purported fascination with sadomasochism (“I used to get him off with a turquoise chain!”). However, her sophomore release demonstrates her songwriting versatility and extends the promise of her debut.

Given all of this, the writing was already on the wall. Drummer Greg Errico lamented in the Wax Poetics article, “there weren’t… radio formats for heavy funk like that.” Only on specialty or independent radio did Betty receive any airtime, and even the few stations that added her songs to rotation encountered resistance; “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up” was played once on a Detroit radio station, but provoked a litany of phone call complaints and was subsequently banned. Betty’s live performances garnered better attention; Vernon Gibbs described her show as “[t]he most exciting event of the year” in Black Music. Again, fellow musicians and artists seemed to agree as luminaries like Richard Pryor, Cecil Taylor, and Gil Evans came to pay their respects at her concerts; Muhammad Ali apparently went backstage to meet her. Yet, peer support didn’t translate into critical or commercial success, let alone mainstream understanding. Major label interest from Island Records gave Betty a chance to record a third album on a larger platform, but 1975’s Nasty Gal flopped. Another album was recorded, but Island, not knowing what to do with her, shelved it and dropped her contract. Just as quickly as she swept the business off its feet, the business pulled the rug out from under her. Betty recorded another album independently in 1979 called Crashin’ From Passion, but lost control of the master tapes and never saw any income returned. The album was released in 1995 as a bootleg, but Betty had long since checked out from the business and returned to her family’s home in Pennsylvania.

As bizarre and sadly familiar as Betty’s tale may be, there is in fact the silver lining of a possible Hollywood ending. Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records has reissued her first two albums, which had heretofore been available as expensive imports or questionable re-presses. For this project the albums are crisply mastered, so the listener can practically feel Betty spit in their ear. Even better is the thoughtful packaging, which includes in-depth liner notes written by Soul-Sides.com’s Oliver “O-Dub” Wang and features significant input from Errico and Betty herself—an amazing contribution by itself considering she has not permitted public interviews for decades, let alone shown an interest in engaging the music industry. Previously unreleased songs and takes round out the package, providing a welcome document of Betty’s in-studio experiments and development of her vocal style. However, the bells and whistles are simply that; the basic fact of making Betty Davis’ music readily available again is the greatest achievement of these reissues.

Ideally, this new attention will lead to wider support and embrace of Betty Davis’ contributions to popular music. As alluded above, countless peers of Betty have already sung her praises. Contemporaries, such as Ice Cube, Talib Kweli, and Ludacris, have rhymed over samples of her work. But unspoken is Betty’s role in framing the work of numerous female artists today. Though they may not know it, many carry on aspects of Betty’s legacy: Lauryn Hill and Ani DiFranco’s fight for independence mirrors Davis’ constant insistence on controlling her work and vision; Lil’ Kim and Madonna’s unapologetic take on sexuality bares a striking resemblance to Betty’s outspoken command of her body; and bands like the Bellrays, J*Davey, and even the Noisettes join Betty’s exploration and explosion of the African-American woman’s role in popular music. Finally, here is a chance to embrace one of pop’s truly human icons. Who’s that, you ask? Now you know.

Dan Nishimoto

Permalink Leave a Comment

Van Morrison – “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (1972)

September 15, 2008 at 3:09 am (Reviews & Articles)

Stephen Holden’s review from issue #116 of Rolling Stone
 

The best-produced, most ambitious Van Morrison record yet released, Saint Dominic’s Preview presents an impressive assemblage of musical ideas that can be enjoyed on many levels. Though the album does not have quite the surface accessibility of Tupelo Honey, being melodically less predictable and lyrically more esoteric, its overall content is musically much richer and more adventurous.

Five of the album’s seven cuts pick up where Tupelo Honey left off, as Van and many of the same crew who put together Tupelo further refine and extend the possibilities of the mainstream road-house band sound that has characterized Van’s last three albums. In contrast, the two longest cuts, “Listen to the Lion” and “Almost Independence Day,” run 10 and 11 minutes respectively, and mark a welcome return to the meditative vitality of Astral Weeks. The coexistence of two styles on the same record turns out to be very refreshing; they complement each other by underscoring the remarkable versatility of Van’s musical imagination.

As in Tupelo Honey, the mood here is one of celebration and expectation, but this time not in terms of a relationship within a particular setting. Above all, Saint Dominic’s Preview invokes the possibility of profound self-revelation through being on the road and making music. Often there is a feeling of thrilling mystical presentiment. All this is expressed in such a dazzling variety of ways that at first listening Saint Dominic seems to be a less unified work than Tupelo or Astral Weeks. The point, however, is that Van is deliberately proclaiming his freedom from musical style or place (either the specific southern locale of Tupelo or the mythic arena of Astral Weeks.) Images of travel abound, adding up to a summons to high adventure–actual, imaginative, and musical.

The album opens with “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile),” a neat three-minute salute to soul then moves into “Gypsy,” in which Van states where he’s at artistically; the rhythms, alternating between double and triple time, are driving and excited, the harmonies faintly Middle Eastern, and the multiple guitar textures exotic. The song demonstrates that Van is precisely a musical gypsy–cryptic, sensual, and shrewd–a master at casting spells and at leading us through whatever territory he feels like exploring. While both cuts show off the band in its funky style, the third cut, “I Will Be There,” goes the furthest of any into R&B-jazz roots, as Van pays expert musical tribute to Count Basie and Joe Williams.

The excellence of these cuts isn’t based on any major innovation, but on the homogenization of diverse but familiar ideas under the auspices of a single strong personality. But just as impressive as Van’s personal stamp is the band’s marvelous ensemble virtuosity. At the forefront of this evolving “roadhouse” sound are two saxophones (alternately played by Jack Schroer, Boots Houston, and Jules Broussard). The greater prominence of saxophone, plus the development of a more integrated and generally denser “band” sound in which Van’s singing is somewhat laid back, mark the chief departures on these cuts from the sound of Tupelo.

Saint Dominic’s Preview gets better as it goes along. The extended meditation, “Listen to the Lion,” which closes side one, is magnificent. Here, as on much of Astral Weeks, the momentum is carried forward by incantatory rhythmic strumming (Van and Ronnie Montrose). But whereas the music on Astral Weeks was augmented by strings, “Listen to the Lion” uses subdued backup vocals (Montrose, Houston, and Van) to achieve the same hypnotic effect. The result is a purer but no less captivating sound than on Astral Weeks. Musically and lyrically, the cut builds slowly to an intense climax through the use of repeated short musical and lyrical phrases that gradually metamorphose without totally changing shape, and then subside, gradually surrendering tension like the release of a deep breath. Van begins: “Listen to the lion inside me.” As the idea is developed it becomes, “and all my tears like water flow for the lion inside me,” and ends, “and we sailed looking for a brand new start.” As the song reaches peak intensity Van’s singing becomes more and more gutteral until it is almost a feral muttering.

The six-and-a-half-minute title cut which opens side two nicely straddles the gap between the album’s two styles. Instrumentally it is very similar to “Tupelo Honey.” The arrangement and vocals are joyously full-bodied and enhanced by John McFee’s steel guitar. However, the dense verbiage (more complex than on any other cut) is disjunctive and arcane, juxtaposing images of mythic travel, with those of social alienation, with reference to James Joyce and Northern Ireland. Within this deliberately obscure but provocative narrative recurs the refrain of Van’s apocalyptic vision which he calls Saint Dominic’s Preview. I was uneasy about Van’s insistence on employing a basically private mythology in Astral Weeks, evocative as it was, and I am uneasy about “Saint Dominic’s Preview” for the same reason. The words are difficult to follow, and the album provides no lyric sheet. Nevertheless Van achieves his effect–contrasting a restless, ominous perspective of the present with his certainty of a positive, perhaps ultimate resolution just ahead. The affirmation of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” is translated to the past in “Redwood Tree,” an ecstatic boyhood reminiscence centering on the image of a sheltering redwood tree. This beautiful, sensuous cut has the album’s greatest potential as a hit single.

“Almost Independence Day,” the ten-minute concluding cut, is a moving summation of what has preceded. Structurally akin to “Listen to the Lion,” it duets Van and Ron Elliott on 12-string and 6-string guitar and effectively uses the Moog as a sort of foghorn bass. Grandly opening with references to the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” the body of the song is an incantatory montage of simple, portentous phrases repeated over and over with varying emotional emphasis: “I can hear the fireworks echoing up and down San Francisco Bay. I can see the boats in the harbor, lights shining out in a cool cool night. I can hear the fireworks. I can hear the people shouting out, up and down the line. And it’s almost Independence Day, way up and down the line.” As in “Listen to the Lion,” the structure of the song is metamorphic, taking the form of a rising and subsiding wave. Music like this is so personal and private that you either relate to it or you don’t. It can be faulted on so many grounds– formlessness, self-indulgence, monotony–by those who are unwilling to listen long and hard. For me, the deeply compelling quality of Van Morrison’s trips is embodied in their very evanescence–in the fact that the forces he conjures are beyond precise articulation and can only be suggested.

Stephen Holden

Permalink Leave a Comment

« Previous page