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"Back On Top" Is Back Out Again With TWO REALLY GOOD GEMS ADDED TO IT!
on 6 March 2008
Typical. The CD you least want to buy - turns out being the one you need the most!
Here's why. Back in 1999 when "Back On Top" was issued, it was touted in the music press as something of a return to form (how many times have we heard that) and on tracks like "Reminds Me Of You" and "When The Leaves Come Falling Down" it actually was. It also boasted truly superlative production values - sound so warm, so clear, and at times so loud, that you had to rush over to the stereo to turn the volume down. So this January 2008 reissue in remastered form of an album that's only a few years old, an album that already boasts truly beautiful sound quality - is a bit superfluous to requirements to say the least. And worse - it's a reissue that forces fans to repurchase what they already own without any discernable bonus in the purchase. Until of course you hear the two previously unreleased bonus tracks they've added on here - and lo and behold - they're absolutely brilliant and must owns!
First up is an Alternate Version of one of the album's strongest songs "Philosopher's Stone" which is done in a jaunty almost sauntering blues fashion with MIKE SANCHEZ providing fantastic Piano and Guitar work. The subtle and smooth Double Bass is played by IAN JENNINGS. It's not as good as the finished more soulful version for sure, but it is excellent - and genuinely deserves the moniker "bonus". But best is kept to last. "Valley Of Tears" is a new song and a truly lovely ballad. JOOLS HOLLAND plays subtle and beautiful piano work on it with a trio of superbly emotive brass fills from PEE WEE ELLIS, LEO GREEN and MATT HOLLAND on Trumpet, Tenor and Baritone Sax. Fans will absolutely have to own these.
All 10 songs on "Back On Top" are written by Van (as are the two bonuses) and the backing musicians and their contributions are typically outstanding. MICK GREEN features on Electric and Acoustic Guitars, PEE WEE ELLIS on Soprano & Tenor Saxophone and GERAINT WATKINS fills in for Georgie Fame with really complimentary keyboard work on both Piano and Hammond Organ. If anything the album's mood is defined by Watkins' warm and slinky Hammond Organ sound, a mellow warm hum that imbibes almost every track with an `old' feel. BRIAN KENNEDY'S duet vocals on preceding albums had been criticized by some fans for almost drowning out the tunes and many just didn't like his high-pitched slightly whiny voice intruding on everything - his contributions on 9 of the albums 10 tracks have been downplayed to just backing vocals - and the songs are better for it. The album's finisher, "Golden Autumn Day", is a good example of ensemble contribution showing how the top quality musicians add so much to the finished song. FIACHRA TRENCH (who did the string arrangements for Fairytale of New York by The Pogues) provides both Piano and string accompaniment to really lovely effect, while PEE WEE ELLIS puts in a tasty Sax solo too. And not to be undone, Van himself blows up a deliciously hooky harmonica solo that's probably the best I've ever heard him do.
The upgraded booklet contains all the lyrics in the same style as the original CD release and a detailed list of who sessions on what, but disappointingly there's no history of where the album fits in, no new liner notes, nor any photographs. The lyrics to the bonus tracks are newly reproduced at the end of the booklet. The original master tapes have been 96K/24 Bit digitally remastered by Tim Young at Metropolis Mastering in London for this 28 January 2008 release and the sound is GORGEOUS - really amazing (but then so was the original).
To sum up - of the 7 discs I've bought in the initial part of this exemplary re-issue campaign, this CD boasts the best sound quality and the best previously unreleased bonus tracks. Newcomers should dig in with confidence; it's a good Van album with great extras. While fans will just have to grit their teeth and smile at their bank managers once again. Oh dear!
Like "Back On Top", 28 other Van Morrison albums are to be re-issued in remastered form throughout 2008 and into early 2009. Each will contain upgraded booklets, previously unreleased material and all will be at mid-price. They'll be released in 4 batches as follows (29 in total):
January 2008 (7 titles)
Tupelo Honey (1971), It's Too Late To Stop Now (2 CD Live Set) (1974),
Wavelenght (1978), Into The Music (1979), A Sense Of Wonder (1985),
Avalon Sunset (1989) and Back On Top (1999)
June 2008 (8 titles)
Veedon Fleece (1974), Common One (1980), Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983), Live At The Grand Opera House, Belfast (1984), No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986), Enlightenment (1990), A Night In San Francisco (2CD Live Set) (1994) and The Healing Game (1997)
September 2008 (7 titles)
Saint Dominic's Preview (1972), A Period Of Transition (1977), Beautiful Vision (1982), Poetic Champions Compose (1987), Hymns To The Silence (2CD Studio Set) (1991), How Long Has This Been Going On (Live At Ronnie Scott's) (1995), Tell Me Something - The Songs Of Mose Allison (1996)
January 2009 (8 titles)
Hard Nose The Highway (1973), Irish Heartbeat (with The Chieftains) (1988),
Too Long In Exile (1993), Days Like This (1995), The Story Of Them (2CD Set) (1999), The Skiffle Sessions - Live In Belfast (with Lonnie Donegan & Chris Barber) (2000), Down The Road (2002) and What's Wrong With This Picture? (2003)
Those hoping to see desperately needed sonic upgrades of his 1st and 2nd album masterpieces on Warner Bothers "Astral Weeks" (1968) and "Moondance" (1970) or even "His Band & The Street Choir" (late 1970) will be disappointed to find that they're NOT in this re-issue campaign. Apparently there is still some dispute between the record label and Van that remains unresolved. A damn shame! "Astral Weeks" and "Moondance" in particular have both been languishing around on crappy-sounding non-remastered CDs for over 20 years now and they're glaringly obvious omissions in this supposedly 'extensive' re-issue campaign. These universally recognized masterpieces deserve 2CD DELUXE EDITION treatment and soon. (Some tracks in remastered form are available across the 3 volumes of "Best Of"). Let's hope they sort their differences and soon!
Also, Van's new studio album "Keep It Simple" is due on 17 March 2008 in the UK and 1 April 2008 in the USA.
(For those interested in this re-issue series, I've also done separate reviews for "Tupelo Honey", "Wavelength", "Into The Music", the live 2CD set "It's Too Late To Stop Now" and "A Sense Of Wonder")