I, like my father and grandfather, suffer from gout. A number of things can trigger it – alcohol, caffeine, high fructose corn syrup – and I get a serious flare up about once a year. Usually, it hits me in my feet, I have trouble walking for a day or two, and it goes away. The past couple of years, tough, I’ve been getting it in my knees. I can walk okay, and it can hold my weight, I just can’t bend it. I got my flare up last night, and it was so bad that at the end of the evening, I couldn’t get into the car normally to drive home (we were at a friend’s birthday party). It took me five minutes of careful maneuvering to finally get into the driver’s seat, at which point I just had to deal with the shooting pain that occurred every time I changed from the gas pedal to the brake pedal. Good times.
How was I that ignorant of one of the absolute best albums that has ever existed ever in the history of music?
In my defense, he wasn’t Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Queen, or Moxy Fruvous (the bands and musicians I was, well, obsessed with throughout high school and most of college). He was my brother’s favorite, and while I liked tunes like “Brown-Eyed Girl” well enough, Van just didn’t really pop up on my radar that much.
Then I spent the summer in Yellowstone National Park with said brother. We spent a lot of time listening to (and making our own) music. Van Morrison was in heavy rotation (along with plenty of Dylan, Neil Young, etc.). It was inescapable, and soon I was a fan.
Moondance is, simply put, the best album Van Morrison ever released. Sure, there are those who say Astral Weeks is the better, more-ambitious album, or that Tupelo Honey better represents the blend of country, R&B, Celtic soul, and whatever else Van wanted to throw into the mix. There might even be a couple of apologists for 1974’s Veedon Fleece (my wife’s uncle, for one). Those people are, in a word, wrong. To be any wronger, we’d have to develop a whole new wrongness scale with new terms for being completely, absolutely, fundamentally wrong, then bury the needle on it, because Moondance is the best damn album in Van Morrison’s extensive catalog.
What Moondance does, better than any other album, is put amazing song after amazing song down in front of the listener. It’s not a matter of genre-hopping for the sake of having a country song and a Celtic soul song and an R&B song and a jazz standard song on the album; instead of letting form dictate the song, the song dictates the form. This isn’t pastiche, it’s genuine affection for different styles of music that Van had absorbed in his youth and synthesized into something new and wonderful. Each song feels a little different, but of a whole: the lead-off, “And it Stoned Me,” is a beautiful ode to childhood (and moonshine), done in an almost country ballad style, while the title track is a swinging pop standard that wouldn’t sound out of place if sung by the likes of Sinatra (or, if you want to get more recent, Michael Buble). “Crazy Love” is just one of the most beautiful love songs ever. “Caravan” is a bouncy, jazzy, jubilant tune with a sing-along coda that I will join in with at the top of my lungs every time, and “Into the Mystic” is the best Celtic soul song Van’s ever done, period.
The second half of the record, while not the string of instant classics that is the first side, is still really damn impressive. “Come Running” has that great horn line that pops up in the chorus and a bridge that gets me smiling every time. You can almost hear Van himself grinning through “These Dreams of You,” with its clever lines like, “You slapped me on the face/I turned around the other cheek.” The only song that I don’t particularly care for is “Brand New Day,” which just feels too slow and drags a bit. It’s not a bad song, per se, but amidst nine other tracks of sheer brilliance, it kinda sticks out as less than stellar. Things pick back up with the harpsichord-driven “Everyone,” with its sprightly martial drumbeat and flute or fife or whatever instrument it is trilling in the background. Things come to a close with “Glad Tidings,” with its insistent bass line and horn stings, pointing the way to future tracks like the always-awesome “Wild Night” (off Tupelo Honey, natch).
From start to finish, Moondance is an accomplished, comfortable record that I always want to start over from the beginning whenever I reach the end. It doesn’t feel as mannered or as calculated as some of his later work, but what it lacks in formal stateliness it more than makes up for with sheer inventiveness and just damn-good songwriting and performance. It is, hands-down, my favorite Van Morrison album, and the highlight of a career that is, frankly, full of them.
To all the new folks who’ve shown up today, welcome! It’s mostly jokes about me assassinating/scalping my sister-in-law and how bizarre my wife and her sisters are. Also, I make poor choices, and some people find them amusing. Occasionally, I talk about music (and also, once every so very rarely, I post some of my own).
I can also be followed on Twitter at @XEYeti, where I occasionally say something vaguely clever. If that’s your sort of thing.
As the end of the year draws nigh, I, like so many other self-important know-it-alls, stoop to bequeath you, the audience, with my illuminating and elucidating best-of list for the year 2012. First, the also-rans.
1. The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten: Back when I first reviewed the album, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, and that hasn’t really changed. Not bad, but not up to the level of expectations I had after the one-two punch of The 59 Sound and American Slang.
2. Calexico, Algeria: A good album, but it didn’t really do much to grab my attention or work in a vein outside of what this band’s been doing for awhile now.
3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill: It’s classic-sounding Neil Young & Crazy Horse. If that’s something you don’t feel you have enough of in your life, it’ll definitely fill that hole, but it doesn’t do anything we haven’t heard from these guys over the past about 40 years.
4. JD McPherson, Signs and Signifiers: Okie musician doing ’50s rockabilly/R&B/swing. Good stuff, even if it feels a little too pastiche-y.
5. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits: Britt Daniel could’ve just done another Spoon album. No one would’ve been able to tell the difference.
And now, on to the main event!
10. The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter: A much stronger effort than their previous, I and Love and You, with better songs and fewer fussy details. There don’t seem to be as many harmonies, though, which I find sad, and this particular record still fall short of their best effort (Emotionalism, for those keeping score at home).
9. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar: Scandanavian (barely out of their?) teens doing Americana and doing it right? Yes, please. “Emmylou” is gorgeous and heartfelt, and the title track is just one of the best damn songs I’ve heard all year.
8. Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal: “Little Talks” has been stuck in my head since sometime last year, and it hasn’t gone away. The rest of the album may not be quite as good, but it’s still pretty damn good. Plus, the lead guy in the band is a chubby man with a beard, which gives me hope of one day being a rock star myself.
7. Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil: The album crowdsourced funding made possible, this ode to everything ’80s is pretty damn catchy. Palmer sounds like she’s having fun fronting a full band, and the GTO rise to the occasion. I do rather miss the old Dresden Dolls days, though.
6. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 3: A bit of a cheat, as this is sort of a “leftovers from the first two volumes” deal with less-developed songs from the Woody Guthrie lyrics with Bragg and Wilco tunes collections. There are still some great songs here, though, especially in Wilco’s offerings (“When the Roses Bloom Again” and “The Jolly Banker” are two of the best songs to come out of the Mermaid Avenue project, if you ask me).
5. AC Newman, Shut Down the Streets: A rather more somber album than we’ve come to expect from the power-pop wunderkind, but a compelling set nonetheless. It’s not anything particularly different from what he’s done on previous albums, but why fix what ain’t broken?
4. Bob Dylan, Tempest: I know, I know, a Bob Dylan album only ranking 4th for the year? Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse. But Tempest just didn’t really do enough new that I felt it deserved a higher spot. It’s good and all, but it didn’t really wow me. The best I can say about it is that it’s new Dylan songs, and they’re pretty good, but they’re nothing we haven’t really heard before.
3. John Fullbright, From the Ground Up: Another Okie, this one a widely-proclaimed “next Dylan.” Or maybe a “next Woody Guthrie,” as Guthrie is an obvious touchstone for the young man’s work (they’re both from the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Okemah, where my own father grew up and I spent many childhood summers). As I mentioned back when this album came out, it sounds exactly like what I thought Fullbright would sound like with a full band, and that was a good thing indeed. The good songs on here are great, and the songs I didn’t care for were still pretty good, just not to my taste.
2. The Wallflowers, Glad All Over: A surprisingly fantastic album from the younger Dylan and his crack team of cohorts. Glad All Over featured several of my favorite songs all year, the best of which was “Misfits and Lovers.” It’s got a bit of the Clash to it, and there’s a nice change in the style from the Wallflowers’ earlier sound while maintaining some continuity. Good stuff.
1. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory: Yeah, they’re two separate releases, and they really don’t share a theme or sound or anything, but they’re both fantastic and this is my list and shut up. Break it Yourself continues Bird’s streak of creating brainy, esoteric chamber pop that incorporates all sorts of different styles and sounds. His use of the violin becomes less and less about traditional playing and more about seeing what sorts of interesting sounds you can get out of the instrument. Hands of Glory feels like a spare, country companion to the world music-esque Break it Yourself. “Three White Horses” is probably my favorite song of the year. The changing tempos and shifting dynamics make it an inventive, enjoyable song.
Those were the ones I dug this year. What grabbed your interest?