Newest Review: ... sounds almost mysterious, accompanied by a bass guitar. Later some brass joins in which I feel doesn't add anything worthwhile to the... more
Van's 3rd solo album
His Band And The Street Choir - Van Morrison
Member Name: GentleGenius
His Band And The Street Choir - Van Morrison
Advantages: A good contrast to his previous two albums, lots of Van 'bite', Van mostly in good voice, some good
Disadvantages: Poor arrangement on some tracks, a couple of weak songs
This is one of Van's lesser-known - or perhaps I should say lesser remembered - albums, although it did get to no.18 in the UK in February 1971, and I didn't hear it myself until the late 1980s, as although I knew it existed, I was unable to lay my hands on a copy despite my frantic attempts. I couldn't even buy it in Adrian's in Wickford (Essex's largest record shop) or anywhere in London that I tried....and, I tried a lot of places, including little specialist collector outlets. When CDs had more or less taken over from vinyl and cassettes, that's when I was able to easily (and thankfully, for the purposes of at that date in time completing my Van collection) secure a copy.
The first track, Domino, is a cheery, quite soulful little song with an easy tune that's soft on the ear and the senses. There is quite a heavy brass section present and the arrangement is fairly percussive, with Van's voice at its best. I'm not too sure what the lyrics are about, them sounding as if they are some kind of message to someone. It has been suggested that the song is about Fats Domino, but the only evidence for that I can see is in the middle of the song, Van sings the words "Hey Mr. DJ, I just wanna hear some rhythm and blues music on the radio", which could be a very loose reference to 'The Fat Man' (Fats Domino). Taking all of Van's work into account from 1964-ish to date, this is one of my favourite of his tracks. On subsequent albums there are some live renditions of this song, one or two of which are extremely good and surpass this studio version.
Crazy Face opens with some soft, soulful, quiet piano, absolutely oozing with that delicious Van 'bite'. What sounds like a slightly out of tune guitar joins in. The tune, although on the surface it sounds simple, actually is quite complex with some unusual chord changes, and there is a sax blast in the middle which gives a few bursts on one note, yet afterwards moves into a not very complicated, but nonetheless interesting improvisation. Some of the backing on Crazy Face I feel is a bit over-stated, as it smashes out the overall gentle mood of the song. The words seem to tell some kind of story, almost in Bob Dylan style, but I honestly have no idea what they are about, other than perhaps being an observation of a person who fancies himself as some sort of cowboy, modelling himself on Jesse James. This song, although light and despite the complex tune being almost middle of the road genre-wise, is quite deep - musically rather than lyrically - and for me is Van at part of his core, that part being what most people who maybe like snips and snaps of his music but aren't dedicated fans, can find a little difficult to sink into. It isn't by any means one of my favourite Van songs, but I still enjoy listening to it.
Give Me A Kiss begins with some lovely R&B (although gentle) guitar, then Van's voice joins in with a semi-rocker here. The tune is happy, getting right into a groove that makes you want to leap up and dance. A slight little tinkle of almost C&W guitar sounds now and again in the background, then some brass takes up the rhythm. The drumming on this track is absolutely superb, keeping an uptempo rhythm. All the instrumentalists are in total sync with one another, which unfortunately can't be said for some of the other material on this album. This is a light, cheery, romantic song which is quite exciting, being just pure, simple, good old rock'n'roll-laced R&B.....and, I love it! One of Van's best songs out of his lighter hearted catalogue of music.
The next track, I've Been Working, has an almost funky flavour although gently so (on one of Van's later albums, a re-working of this song is studio performed with the funk aspect being much heavier and more direct). The drumming is excellent, holding a steady rhythm which sounds almost mysterious, accompanied by a bass guitar. Later some brass joins in which I feel doesn't add anything worthwhile to the song, although it does contain a decent little sax improvisation. The words don't say too much to me, them not being anywhere near as poetic as Van has proved himself time and time again to be, and it certainly isn't one of my favourite of his all-time tracks....probably because I'm not a fan of funky-sounding music. The best part for me is at the end, when the song drifts away with the drums, bass and percussion moving quietly into the background, with a soft organ moving into the foreground, complimenting Van doing a little bit of scat singing which eases off into an almost mystical-sounding finish.
Call Me Up In Dreamland opens with some almost bluesy sax, then when Van's voice joins in, it turns into a quite happy-sounding song with an easy rhythm. Like with most of the other tracks on this album, lyrically this isn't a strong song, but it does have an appealing, almost good-time tune which is something that would suit a sing-song down the pub just before closing time when everyone has had more than a few too many jars. There is a strong element of travelling by train in this song, although that's as far as I'm able to interpret the lyrics....lyrics which I suspect might have a deeper meaning than I personally have the ability to hook into. There is a pleasantly rolling sax solo, borderline R&B in style, in the middle of the track which breaks it up a bit. Although still good and oozing all the character he's so famous for, Van's voice is a bit 'shouty' - I prefer it when he sings more quietly. Overall, despite it having good snatches, I'm not wild about the tune of this song as it's a bit too pretty.
I'll Be Your Lover Too begins with some guitar that sounds like a mixture of blues and Spanish. Van's voice joins in with his very tender, romantic lyrics which hold promise of his intentions to love and cherish someone forever. I wouldn't say the words are particularly deep, and Van certainly has penned better, but it must be remembered he was still pretty young when he wrote the material for this album, some of it preceding Astral Weeks. On this track, for me the best part is the musical arrangement...that soft, haunting acoustic guitar which is out in front, and an even softer, very drifty/dreamy sounding electric slide guitar making an appearance in the background now and again. The percussion is soft, played with brushes rather than drumsticks to give a quieter effect. This is a song which needs listening to a few times before it can hook into your consciousness, as on first hearing, it doesn't sink in....I think maybe because although it's quite pretty and easy on the ear tune and arrangement-wise, it actually is quite a complex song.
The next track, Blue Money, isn't one of my favourites of Van's as to me it sounds thrown together (there are a couple of live versions and studio re-arrangements of this song on subsequent albums, and I'm not mad on any of them). The song opens with some quite nice guitar, but the arrangement as the song continues is a bit weird, not suiting the rather jerky tune. The lyrics come across as rather throwaway, to the point of being meaningless. However, as I often have said before, Van at his worst is still a lot better than zillions of other singers/songwriters/performers at their best. I suppose this song does roll along somewhat, but not to anywhere in particular, it just being an easy-listening 'filler' type track which doesn't hold a lot of substance....even the brass in the middle-eight section refuses to hit my spot or do anything for me. I don't dislike it as such, but Van is capable of much, much, much better than this.
Virgo Clowns is an interesting little song, with Van's voice backed by some quite complex rolls on an acoustic guitar. The words are warm, reassuring, offering Virgoan people up as a sort of empathetic support system for anyone who is feeling miserable. I really like the tune to this song, it here and there having a slightly Spanish feel to it....plus, it has oodles and oodles of that profoundly poignant soulfulness which is special and unique to Van....and the very essence, heart and spirit of what I love about him. This for me is without doubt the best track on this album, and from a personal point of view, it reminds me strongly of the early 1990s when life was exceedingly good for me and I was playing it a lot at the time.
Gypsy Queen begins all tinkly, sounding just like one of those jewel boxes where when you open the lid, a plastic ballerina wearing a tutu pops up and dances in circles. The tune of this is very pleasant and Van's voice has an interesting tone, him working up and down the scale with ease. Even though this is so pretty almost to the point of being sickly, there is something very appealing about the way it is presented, as it's an odd yet lovely combination of a twee little song which is quite heavily laced with Van's special brand of wistfulness. There are some blasts of brass here and there which manage to cancel out some of the sugariness of this easy to listen to love song. I didn't like it when I first heard it, but as time went by and I was able to lift the lid off then see what lie underneath, I changed my mind.
Sweet Jannie has a distinct R&B flavour, although the tune is a bit awkward in that it doesn't run along too smoothly. The percussion is excellent, but there is a lead guitar which is hogging the limelight a little too much and the player sounds as if he's reading from a different songsheet to the rest of the band. This track is a little disappointing from the tune side, as although Van's voice is tip-top here (he's so good at singing this kind of music), there's something a bit out of sorts regarding the way the tune follows through from itself in that some of the note changes don't make perfect sense to me. It does sound as if it could have been one of Van's very early pieces, perhaps even earlier than anything from Astral Weeks, as it is similar to other of his material from about 1967-ish. All in all, Sweet Jannie is a simple love song done very much in 'feel-good' R&B/pop style, lyrically throwaway and not one of my favourites. Perhaps it would sound better if the arrangement had been a little different.
The next track, If I Ever Needed Someone, is a slow love song which is sung by Van with a quiet passion, lots of wistfulness, lots of bite, lots of soul....with his voice at its very best. The tune is very good, and I love the piano, but there is an electric guitar repeating pounding chords throughout which can become irritating to listen to....not to mention the backing singers whose 70s-style soul voices don't suit this otherwise quite gentle, almost spiritual love song. There is a little blast of brass in the middle of the song which actually does sound good, enhancing the overall mood, but I wish this had been recorded with just Van and a quiet piano with perhaps a tinkly, soft guitar playing those little heart-tugging twiddles which is present in so much of Van's very best work. A shame, because this really is a good song where Van's vocals are on absolutely top form, but it doesn't come across quite how I feel it should due to some flaws in the arrangement.
The final track on this album, Street Choir, begins with an organ taking the main instrumental part of the tune, making it sound almost 'churchy' but not in a gospel-ish way....more in a traditional way. Street Choir is another track which appears on Van's later albums a few times with different arrangements - sadly I'm not keen on any of them, as I really don't like the tune. The backing vocals on this song are far too overdone and the instrumentals sound a bit out of kilter with one another, plus Van's voice is a bit too shrieky. The lyrics are a little odd and I'm not sure what they are about, but I detect an undercurrent of unrest in them. I can't really think how I would like to hear this song performed in a way that it would appeal to me - it isn't often that I can say with all honesty that I actually dislike a Van Morrison track, but this is one of those instances....it's too draggy (to the point of being depressing), not very well-arranged and although passionately performed, misses my special 'Van Spot' completely.
It has been said that Van Morrison wasn't happy with 'The Street Choir' album, as the arrangement and production of it was stripped from his hands and his control. Many years ago I saw a TV interview with Van where he spoke of his misgivings over this album, and I must say that I agree with him. However, he did write the music and there are a couple of weak tracks present here - the very good ones are superb, although perhaps could have been arranged a bit better....maybe Van (who has produced and arranged most of his subsequent albums) could have done it far better himself. He seems to think so, and so do I.
However, even taking all the little niggly bits of this album into account, it is still something that I enshrine, simply because I'm an obsessive Van Morrison fan and he for me can rarely put a foot wrong - even his bad stuff is good, and he hasn't churned out very much bad stuff during his very lengthy career.
My own shining glory, track-wise on this album, by far is Virgo Clowns as it speaks to me in a very personal way, saying something that I really want to hear.....not so much through the lyrics, but through the singing, the music and the soul.
Taken as a whole, this isn't a difficult album to hear as all the songs are very tuneful, heavily R&B laced, incorporating a touch of rock & roll here and there, with the slower tracks being of an easy-listening nature that any young person back in 1970/1971 would have felt comfortable playing in front of their parents.
'The Street Choir' is by no means Van's best album, but it is an interesting contrast to its predecessor, Moon Dance, helping to pave the way towards his fans seeing him as a gifted songwriter who can turn his hand to a myriad of styles....such being accentuated if we remember that Van's album prior to Moon Dance was the deep, complex, soul-stirring Astral Weeks.
Although 'The Street Choir' album as a whole is easy to listen to (perhaps not quite so easy as Moon Dance but much easier than Astral Weeks), I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point for anybody wishing to familiarise themselves with Van's work as although the album does have a generous dose of what he is at his core, it doesn't come through so well as on a lot of his other work, largely due to the not always perfect studio arrangement which isn't so bad that it could be considered ham-fisted, but could be much better.
On a final note, the booklet accompanying my CD has a superimposed picture of Van's head - one small and one large - on the front, and on the rear, a photo of Van smiling (yes, smiling!!!) accompanied by the band members he worked with on this album. The front leaf of the booklet contains a short piece written by somebody whose signature I can't read, but who is showering this album with praise. The following pages list the musicians and song lyrics, and on the last page, there is a very short biography of Van's life to date at that time.
At the time of writing, 'The Street Choir' (search for the full title of the album) can be purchased from Amazon as follows:-
The album on CD in its original format.....
New: from £1.90 to £10.64
Used: from £1.89 to £27.50
A re-mastered version.....
New: from £29.71 to £45.75
Used: only 2 copies currently available @ £37.00 & £38.58
New: from £12.37 to £31.53
Used: from £9.75 to £61.23
There is also a box set available called Trilogy, which I feel is a quite interesting collection, made up of Van's first three solo albums...Astral Weeks, Moon Dance and 'The Street Choir' and I personally would recommend this to any dedicated Van fan who needs to replace their old albums, or to give any newcomer to The Man's work a good idea of how he progressed in his early solo years:-
New: only 2 copies currently available @ £23.74 & £54.29
Used: only 3 copies currently available @ £19.00, £19.95 & £65.69
Paging down the availability list of this album on Amazon, there are also several imports from different countries, such as the USA and Germany.
Some items on Amazon are available for free delivery within the UK, but where this doesn't apply, a £1.26 charge should be added to the above figures.
Over, out, and thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Summary: An interesting early Van album, but not very well-arranged for the most part