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"Gravy Rings, Wagon Wheels, Barn Bracks, Snowballs..." - They're All Back! And In Wonderful REMASTERED Sound!
on 10 February 2008
Released in February 1985, "A Sense Of Wonder" followed after 1984's purely functional live set "Grand Opera House, Belfast" and I remember was greeted at the time as a bit of a let down. "Wonder" occupies a three star place in Van's five star ranks for most fans, but this 28 January 2008 REMASTER has REALLY GREAT SOUND and excellent bonus tracks, and on hearing both the album again with it new additions, these songs are better than I remembered them. Maybe its time to push that 3-Star rating up to 4!
Here's how it's laid out: Tracks 1 to 10 make up the original album with Tracks 11 and 12 being previously unreleased alternate takes of "Crazy Jane On God" and "A Sense Of Wonder". "Crazy Jane On God" was never on the original album; it first appeared as an outtake on the 2CD set "The Philosopher's Stone - The Unreleased Tapes" from 1998 (all previously unreleased tracks). Like that 1998 version, this different take has GORGEOUS sound quality - a superlative bonus track. The alternate version of the album title track fares less well though. It's easy to see why this `starter' version of "A Sense Of Wonder" was left in the can. It's done in a slightly faster pace and at 6:08 minutes, it's shorter than the final album version of 7:11 minutes. It's a good version of the song - it is - but it's missing something. That something was the truly fantastic contribution MOVING HEARTS made to the finished version. MH are not on this cut, and it shows. Still, what we do have is the lovely organ playing of JOHN ALLAIR featuring throughout and while it's absolutely not as good as the uplifting final, it's nonetheless an excellent addition here. I'm always wary of outtakes and alternate versions as bonus material on re-issue CDs that act as a cheap way of suckering fans to purchasing more of the same. But these two choices are inspired for the most part - and an absolute must-have for Van lovers.
The album contains two instrumentals - "Boffyflow And Spike" is fun, but "Evening Meditation" is much better - harking back to the stunning moody Celtic Mystique instrumentals on "Inarticulate Speech of the Heart" from 1983. But the album's centre and masterpiece is the title track "A Sense Of Wonder". MOVING HEARTS, an Irish band both famous and beloved for its mixture of Rock, Irish folk and incendiary politics, feature as backing musicians on it (they're also on "Boffyflow & Spike"). DAVY SPILLANE, Moving Hearts' virtuoso UiIeann pipe player, adds truly heart-touching flourishes to the track, which combines with BIANCO THORNTON and PAULINE LAZANO on backing vocals to perfectly matched effect (their vocals feature on six of the album's ten tracks). To this day, the track brings tears to my Irish goggleboxes - Van at his best.
There are two covers on the album; "What Would I Do?" is a Ray Charles slow love song and is superbly and warmly delivered, but the R'n'B/jazzy cover of Mose Allison's "If You Only Knew" seems out of place here - Van sounds like Georgie Fame on a very bad day and no matter how much he may love Allison's catalogue - this isn't a great song nor an inspired delivery. More successful is "Let The Slave"; Van's plaintive music put to the wonderful words of William Blake's "The Price Of Experience", with Bianca and Pauline Lazano once again adding great backing vocals. An overlooked gem called "A New Kind Of Man" finishes the album with both PEE WEE ELLIS and BOB DOLL providing lovely brass work in the background.
The upgraded booklet contains all the lyrics in the same "leafy" style as the original vinyl album inner bag and reproduces the bewildering "Boffyflow And Spike" story, also on the inner sleeve. There's a brief list of who sessioned on what, but disappointingly there's no history of where the album fits in, no new liner notes, nor any photographs. However, a nice touch is the lyrics to the alternate takes - the record company could have lazily left out "Crazy" and reproduced the `same' lyrics for "Wonder" at the end of the booklet, but closer examination shows they haven't. The lyrics for Crazy" are provided as are the free forming of the alternate "Wonder" - a nice touch.
But the best bit is definitely the SOUND. The original analogue master tapes have been 96K/24 Bit digitally remastered by Tim Young at Metropolis Mastering in London - and the sound is BEAUTIFULLY CLEAR and WARM - making you reassess every song and the superb musicianship on each. This is the 4th CD I've bought in this series (see separate reviews for "Tupelo Honey", "Wavelength" and "Into The Music") and they've all been revelations so far. And this album too - a nice "new" surprise.
All in all, a SUPERB REMASTER then and one I urge fans to give another chance to.
Like "A Sense Of Wonder", 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 (1979), 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 hear 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 in March 2008