Even low-key Van Morrison records can make worthwhile purchases, which is why this short and slightly eclectic piece should really be considered as essential as the more epic works from the V.M. back catalogue. If you are at all familiar with Van's work during this period, roughly 1970-1973, then you should have a vague idea of what to expect from this album. However, although a number of tracks continue the sound of his other key releases from the time, particularly albums like Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey, there are a couple of great, epic-ruminations, that point more towards his more mystical, interesting albums, with both Listen to the Lion and the closing track, Almost Independence Day, picking up where songs like Madame George and Ballerina left off.. whilst also pointing the way forward to the sound of future albums like Veedon Fleece and The Common One.
The album opens with the great rhythm and blues inflected Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven when You Smile), which has become a sort of standard on classic rock radio stations and easily ranks amongst the very best songs Morrison has ever composed (...and it was famously covered by Kevin Rowland and Dexys Midnight Runners on their Too-Rye-Ey album, which is just as essential as this). Next song Gypsy is a personal favourite, mixing elements of folk, jazz and psychedelic pop to great effect, with Morrison playing some great acoustic guitar to compliment the subtle shades of piano and the shimmering horns. The subject matter of the song is classic Van, bringing to mind Caravan from Moondance with it's romanticised image of dusky gypsy maidens and a life of undiluted joy. This was still Van's happy period, when he was married and living in up state New York (hanging out with Dylan and The Band)... later his work would become much darker and introspective, more akin to the classic sound of Astral Weeks and that legendary epic, T.B. Sheets.
I Will Be There is a nice little throw-away pop song, like some of the stuff on Tupelo Honey, which leads us nicely into the colossal genius of Listen to the Lion, a twelve minute stream of conscious ramble that never makes itself clear... instead, Morrison employs a number of subtle key changes and all manner of metaphorical imagery to keep us interested, not to mention that sterling voice, which is at something of an early peak here. The title track is more sublime genius (in fact, the last four songs are all impeccable), with a great sound and overall performance from Morrison and his band of session players, and a great, up-lifting refrain, which points towards Van's problems with his record label at the time (although the message is buried beneath layers of gorgeous symbolism)... whilst the great integration of the horns within the mire of piano, organ and guitars can also be found on the next track, the similarly effecting Redwood Trees.
My favourite track on the album is the loose and seemingly improvised epic, Almost Independence Day, which finds Van strumming repetitive, hypnotic chords on a 12 string guitar, underneath which we find some classical-style piano fills and an early use of the moog synthesiser. It's the song that points most towards the style of Astral Weeks... but whereas songs like Cyprus Avenue and Slim Slow Slider were dense, melancholic and claustrophobic, this seems to carry an enormous sense of hope, again relating to Van's issues over his career as well as his personal life; replete with a myriad of poetic imagery that brings to mind some of his literary heroes, like Beckett and Blake.
St. Dominic's Preview is, in my opinion, a great album, and is one to easily rank alongside the other Morrison albums of this era (...particularly the aforementioned His Band... and Tupelo Honey) and is a great record to progress onto if you already have his three masterworks, Astral Weeks, Moondance, and Veedon Fleece.