It’s that time of year!
Just say this to yourself: Van Morrison in 5.1 surround sound.
Doesn’t exactly roll easily off the tip of your brain, does it?
When it comes to first choice candidates of vintage recordings to be remixed into surround sound, Van Morrison has not been at the top of the list usually. But if you stop and think about it, the concept is kinda nice and the fact that someone has gone ahead and done this already is reason enough for this writer to want to take a listen.
I wasn’t counting on being able to do said listening any time soon, however. Advance promo copies weren’t available from the label and given the nearly $70 price of the package at retail, I was having trouble justifying the purchase.
Again, I was thinking to myself: Van Morrison in 5.1 surround??
Shopping Karma shined down on me on a recent trek back East where I happened upon a used copy of the set (with a hole punched through the bar code — so someone somewhere got a promo copy!) for a mere $44 — for four CDs and a Blu-ray, that was more than a fair price.
Before I get into little details, I will say that the album sounds really nice in 5.1 surround with an openness that greatly benefits the mostly acoustic instrumentation including the saxes and such. Given that the album was recorded on an 8-track machine, its all the more impressive how the music opens up in surround (thats not always the case, especially for relatively simple rock ‘n roll music).
From the Rhino Records website we learn that the Blu-Ray Audio disc features high-resolution 48kHz / 24 bit PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound. However, when look at the actual disc, you see it is clearly printed to be 192 kHz / 24 bit. Via my Oppo player, the on screen information comes up as Dolby TrueHD when playing this disc! So, which is it Mr. Rhino? I’m leaning toward the latter, but you’ll have to decide for yourself as to what you think you are hearing.
The fine sounding CD remaster and Blu-ray 5.1 surround mix were done by original engineer Elliot Scheiner.
In many ways, Moondance as an album plays almost a jazz recording that creates an overall mood that pulls the listener into its spaces. I would not be surprised to find the title track in most jazz “fake books” these days. That said, the completist treatment of including four discs of session takes is not entirely surprising. Jazz artists like Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn have received this sort of treatment in the past, with take after take of every note they recorded presented consecutively so the listener can hear the evolution into the final version of a song they know and love.
For the musicologist and hardcore Morrison fan, buying this set is a no brainer.
Perhaps more interesting still are the unreleased tracks like Morrison’s version of “I Shall Sing,” a song given to Art Garfunkel for his first solo album a few years later. The Mono mix of this song tucked away at the end of the fourth CD is indeed pretty groovy! This should have been released back in the day. Its got an infectious groove this side of late period (Naked era) Talking Heads — would love to hear David Byrne sing this one, actually — and the saxes rule. Wow.
The other Mono mixes found on Disc #4 were probably made for singles (remember, radio was mostly broadcast in Mono at that time). Its really interesting to hear how a track like “Glad Tidings” was re-worked in Mono to an almost Phil Spector like sound, with loads of reverb. The handclaps are bathed in reverb too and it almost works. I say “almost” because they kept the vocals very upfront — with very little to reverb or other effects — as per the “singer-songwriter” production style emerging at that time. Ultimately, as a production this sort of half ‘n half approach kind of fails. For the ages however, I would have gone all the way and at least made the full blown Wall Of Sound type production of the tune, even if it had to sit in the archives until a day like today when we might get to hear it on a retrospective collection like this.
Alas, I wasn’t the producer, so we don’t get that.
]]>Still it is interesting to hear that they were dabbling with this sort of treatment. The Mono mix of Caravan is pretty rockin’ even if Van’s vocals are pretty dry (again, very little reverb) and very much in your face.
Its kind of amazing they didn’t include a Mono mix of the title track or “Into the Mystic,” two tracks which came to more or less define Van Morrison’s sound for a long time. Assuming they didn’t mix those songs to Mono, it might be indicative of underlying crap shoot that this process of making records was/is; no one really knew if the album would become a record for the ages or even a transient pop hit. Heck, they probably didn’t even really know if Van was going to be an ongoing success at that point.
Listening to the many takes of the songs, its quite remarkable how fully formed Van’s sound was from the get go. Take #1 of Caravan sounds pretty wonderful for the most part but if you listen closely, you can hear that Van is in fact warming up his voice and the band take by take as they nail the groove of the final take.
Of course, you have to be pretty hardcore into Morrison and this album to want to hear all this. Which of course leads me back to the big question as to why this set exists and why now? Because they can? Probably. I mean. Heck, there isn’t any info on this set’s release on Van’s own website. Poking around the web, I discovered that the The Village Voice recently reported that Van himself has not really authorized this release. So… well… what IS prompting this release? Maybe some of you out there in audiophile land have some clues?
Let us know…
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who’s songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.