Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Cover of Van Morrison's album "Moondance"

This week,I’ve been listening to Van Morrison’s third solo album “Moondance” from 1970. Though I’ve heard his songs on occasion my whole life, my real introduction to him came about two years ago. I spent a week with his second solo album “Astral Weeks” as part of this great albums project. That album did not appeal toe me at first. By the end of that week, I stil did not care for it much, but within a year it became one of my absolute favorite albums. My son got me a vinyl copy of the album for Christmas, and I purchased the Record Store Day release of outtakes. My guitar practice time often involves playing a “Madame George.

I’ve been looking forward to listening to another album of Morrison’s work. This absolutely did not disappoint. This album is more immediately accessible than “Astral Weeks.” That tracks on that previous album can feel like they go on too long, as the performance venture off into a mildly evolving folk jazz. The performances on “Moondance,” while incorporating some jazz-influence, lean more towards folk rock and have more tight composition of pop songs.

Caravan

The third track “Caravan” immediately caught my attention. I really like the “turn it up.. turn it up” section that ends each chorus. The key there is the rhythm. The band hits twice and rests while Morrison sings emphasizing the next two beats. It’s a back and forth call-and-response, with the accompaniment leading. This rhythmically engaging exchange utilizes repetition which encourages the listener to participate. This hook brought me into the song immediately and it is the first thing I talk about here. That’s the sign of a good hook!

The verses start with two runs through the 50s Progression (I-vi-IV-V). This is followed by two runs through a descending chord progression of IV-iii-ii-I. This is played with jaunty boom-boom-bop-rest rhythm that anticipates the post-chorus. Drums, bass, piano, and acoustic guitar provide the majority of accompaniment through the song. Then the band rises into a mildy celebratory la-la-la section following I-V-I-V-iii-ii-I. This again is a common chord progression, a basic two chord I-V.. followed by a descending run through minor chords.

The lyrics present three main themes intermingling in reverie. First, a gypsy caravan spent the night near the speaker’s home when they were young. Second is the speaker’s current relationship with “sweet lady.” Third, these are tied together by songs playing on the radio. The childhood evening of listening to the songs and stories of the caravan revealed something to the young man that he feels benefit in making the current setting resemble that one. As a child, he saw the girl on the caravan playing with the radio and today, he asks his lady to turn on and up the radio. Likewise, as they sat around the campfire then, he asks the lady today to turn on the electric light.

turn up your radio
and let me hear the song
switch on your electric light
then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight
so I can feel you
sweet lady of the night,
I shall reveal you
(If you will) turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher; radio
turn it up, turn it up, so you know; radio

Brand New Day

The slower soulful track “Brand New Day” sits in the middle of side two on “Moondance.” Morrison told he heard a song by The Band on the radio. He was feeling frustrated and down and was inspired to write a song of hope. The imagery and lyrics are poetic, well-written, yet straight forward. He sees the sun come up in the morning, and realizes that this brand new day offers a change. The night is in the past.

Drums, bass, and piano start the song off and vocals start at just after 1 second. A clean electric guitar in the right channel balances the acoustic piano in the left channel. These two instruments play dancing arpeggios and gentle melodic lines, suggesting the chord progression. Morrison’s acoustic rhythm guitar is barely audible in the center. The bass guitar, also center channel, gives us the most straight forward hint of the chords: I-vii-vi-vi-IV-V-I-V for the chorus.

That’s a descending set minor chords for the first bar followed by a promising IV-V major chords, offering a strong cadence. The chorus is a solid cadence-rich chord progression of I-V-i-IV. It has a solid foundation on the tonic, making it a perfect match for the hopeful strengthening feeling in the lyrics: “It seems like… It feels like.. a brand new day.”

The lyrics of the verses consist of two quatrains, each following a ABCB rhyme scheme. However, with the delivery and internal rhyming, we could also see the verses as a pair of six lines each, following a AABCCB rhyme scheme. These lyrics give something of an “Amazing Grace” tale, with the sun and the promise of a new day being the grace. The three verses progress through speaker’s change in feeling. At first, they see the sun come in and see the promise; next, we get a description of how they were feeling before and after without any real detail; and finally, it’s all pleasant warmth.

And the sun shines down
All on the ground
Yeah and the grass is oh so green
And my heart is still
And I’ve got the will
And I don’t really feel so mean
Here it comes, here it comes
Here it comes right now
Till it comes right in on time
Well it eases me
And it pleases me
And it satisfies my mind

Into the Mystic

One of the best songs I’ve heard by Van Morrison, “Into the Mystic” closes the first side of the record. It starts with just the acoustic rhythm guitar that remind me of the previous album, “Astral Weeks.” He adds to it a rhythm slap of the palm muting the strings just as they are quickly strummed. Bass and nylon guitar quietly join in. The bass plays a moving groove, with nylon guitar gently plays lead lines between Morrison’s vocal lines. With the second part of the chorus, a piano joins and the acoustic guitar picks up in energy. After the chorus, some majestic, but simple, horns bring up the mood. They fall back, letting the vocals return to repeat the chorus. Then the horns again. The song builds up in energy and mood this way.

Lyrically, the song presents its own statement of purpose: “I want to rock your gypsy soul, just like way back in the days of old, and together we will float into the mystic.” The verses tie this mission statement to age-old romantic tales of voyages across the sea. And these are the visuals upon which Morrison hopes his song can take us. At the same time, the declaration is that of erotic love. The speaker in the song will be returning from a sea voyage, and when he does, they will make love and “float into the mystic.”

The words are made up of only a single verse, followed by a two-part chorus that he sings twice; and then as the song comes to close “to late to stop now…” The lines of the verse have a AABCCB rhyme scheme. However, in the middle of the third and sixth line, the ending rhyme of the previous two lines appears. He also makes use of alliteration with two words starting with the same consonant: “bonnie boat” and “soul and spirit.”

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”

album cover for Sticky Fingers

I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album “Sticky Fingers” this week. It’s no secret that I’ve become a fan of the Stones over the past year, listening to these weekly albums. I already loved “Exile on Main Street,” but have since fallen also for “Let It Bleed” and “Beggars Banquet.” From this album, I had heard a few songs before, but only really knew “Brown Sugar.” Of course, by the end of the week, I’d found another favorite album. I finished the week by watching the excellent film “Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda Theatre” of the band performing the full album in 2015.

The first track “Brown Sugar” cannot be denied, kicking off the opening with one of Keith Richard’s most iconic and representative guitar riffs. Jagger compared the groove to rock n roll classic “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Cannon. The lyrics are a different story, though. Jagger sings about a slave-owner raping slaves “just around midnight.” The chorus of “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? Just like a young girl should.” makes us question the opinion and intentions of Jagger. A couple decades later, he thought better of it, stating “I never would write that song now.”

Wild Horses

“Wild Horses” is one of the Stone’s most successful anthemic country-rock ballads. The writing is credited to Jagger and Richards, however Gram Parsons worked with them. A bright strummed acoustic guitar opens on the track, joined by a second acoustic guitar. An electric guitar plays a simple melodic line to lead into the vocals: “Childhood living is easy to do…” This electric guitar and amp are set to just under the “breaking point” for the sound, so it’s a clean sound with a slight touch of warm distortion.

After the vocals begin, that first acoustic guitar begins to play muted individual high notes, plucked seemingly randomly. It’s really an odd thing for what started as the rhythm guitar to do. The second guitar picks up the role of rhythm strummed chords. These are the only instruments we hear throughout the first verse and chorus.

The verse follow a chord progression of iii-I-iii-I-ii-IV-V-I-V-IV. The first line and second line of each verse has the iii-I-iii-I pattern. The third and fourth line of each verse begins with ii, and then a hop of IV-V to resolve to I, then hops in the opposite order of V-IV to leave close the pattern. This means that the second line ends with V-IV to continues on to iii at the beginning of the third line.

The chorus stays in the same key, however, it FEELS like a key change. This is a change UP, though from major to minor; so it has that anthem feel, but without the joy. This is enhanced by the addition of drums and bass for the chorus. It feels like a change from G major to A minor. This progression for the chorus is: ii-IV-V-I-VIIā™­-IV-V, again using that IV-V hop to move to the tonic chord.

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

The song “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” just blew me away. At first, it was the rhythmic interweaving of the two electric guitars with the vocals; But after about 2 1/2 minutes, the rock stops and the track rolls into an extended jazz-soul mid-section. The groove becomes gradually more Latin; Mick Taylor’s guitar solo that takes us out feels a little like Santana. Put simply, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is a 2 1/2 minute rocker that’s capped by an atypical but brilliant jam.

Richard’s guitar kicks open the song with a great guitar riff. He frequently uses open-G tuning (aka keef tuning), and that’s likely the case here. Marty Schwartz gives an good demonstration, make the importance of open-G. This also gives visual to what we hear: some stylistic slides up and down the neck between notes. This sliding technique played a major role in the guitar work of one of my heroes: Johnny Thunders. I assume that Richards picked it up from Chuck Berry.

Drums and bass join in the center, punching through the spaces left by the rhythm guitar. The guitar drops down to a lower pitch to signal the start of the next section. Jagger jumps in between the drums and guitar, “Yeah! You got…” A second rhythm guitar in the left channel, matches the first. This one with a little more bite.. And then the two guitars begin to rapidly trade riffs back and forth, left and right. “…satin shoes! Yeah, you got nasty boots.”

This back and forth weaving of guitar riffs full of bursts and riffs runs through the verses. For the choruses, the guitar join together in strumming chords that ring out in a fully overdriven wash of guitar. It’s a totally rock n roll sound. The chorus lacks the punch of the verse, due to the lack of rest and the softer upper-range singing. But this allows the chorus to grow in intensity leading up to the jam.

Moonlight Mile

“Moonlight Mile” closes the album; It became one of my favorite Stones songs this week. It has the unique distinction of being mostly written without Keith Richards. He created a short guitar riff years previous that he called “Japanese Thing” but hadn’t found a use for. Jagger and Taylor stayed up late, after Richards had gone, writing “Moonlight Mile” around “Japanese Thing.” I suspect the Richards bit may be the motif that opens the song and forms the basis of the verses. The remaining music and instrumentation hints at the sound of Japanese music.

Again, they open the track with a single guitar panned hard right. This is joined by an electric guitar playing high notes picked close to the bridge to get a Japanese-sound. This playing of this guitar switches back and forth between this sound and harder strummed slide guitar lines. Watts plays a nearly orchestral drum beat primarily on the toms.. The second chorus, glissando strings provide a lush that enhance the Japanese sound during the bridge. A loosely-played piano drums along in the center channel.

The lyrics talk of estranged life on the road, it’s vaguely lonely and homesick. This sentiment was part of the original idea for “Wild Horses” as well, though narrative elements related to Jagger and Richard’s relationships filled the verses.

Oh I’m sleeping under strange strange skies
Just another mad mad day on the road
My dreams is fading down the railway line
I’m just about a moonlight mile down the road

The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead”

This week, I’ve been listening to The Smiths’ 1986 album “The Queen is Dead” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I remember my introduction to this album well. It happened twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen. I went to a rural school in Ohio. A new kid from Colorado lent me a mixtape to introduce me to music he was into. Between the tracks by groups like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, was a song got my attention. When I asked my friend about the song, he groaned. “My friend made that tape for me and put that song on their as a joke to annoy me.” I immediately fell in love with The Smiths. This week was neither an introduction, nor a revisit, as I’ve been listening to it ever since I first heard it.

The music mixed the old and the new; innovative but through a lens of nostalgia. Just the sound of it felt like warm sadness with lyrics unapologetically near maudlin. The lyrics were boldly melancholic, self-aware, sardonic, and sad. There was a touch of humor without comedy. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but the atmosphere made it feel like a lost memory.

The song “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” was my introduction to the Smiths. It remains one of my favorite songs by any artist. The lyrics of this song show obvious influence from the New York Dolls’ “Lonely Planet Boy which is also one of my favorites.

Johnny Marr also borrowed a guitar riff from the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Hitch Hike” which was also copied by The Velvet Underground. Light reverb touches the light jangly multi-tracked strummed acoustic guitars creating the first layer of nostalgic atmosphere. The strumming is a standard rhythm guitar pattern. Mike Joyce, likewise, plays a standard and appropriate drum pattern without flourish. Andy Rourke’s bassline provides the only real melodic interest to the musical accompaniment. During the chorus, Marr plays the synth-string on an Emu Emulator with long high-notes with a few trills, again with a light reverb. Later, also is a flute line hauntingly, but playfully, played under a verse. All of these simple elements come together beautifully through layering and production.

While the instrumentation is simple, the chord progression itself is fairly unusual. The tonic chord barely gets used as one until the chorus, which is part of what let’s the chorus sounds as if it is an answer to some question not quite posed by the verses.

The title track “The Queen is Dead is a beautiful mess of organized chaos. A sample from the movie “The L-Shaped Room” starts the track. Then a tom drum loop pounds introducing the drive of the song. This is joined by the rest of the drums, which were recorded separately. A driving bassline supports the track.

Layers of rhythm guitar play V-V-V-V-V-V-VI# for most of the song, closing with a coda of V-VI#-I. At least, that’s how I hear the chord progression. I always feel a little uncertain when there’s a borrowed chord (the VI#), if I’m notating it correctly. A wild guitar with incredible feedback through a wah pedal enhances the sense of chaos and urgency. It also buries the less crazy rhythm guitars.

The opening verse makes clear the speaker’s opinion of English royalty. I’m not sure what exactly is meant by the “boar between arches” line. A search online lead me to plenty of discussions, but not real consensus. I particularly liked the idea that potential play on words with ‘boar’ and ‘bore’ and ‘arches’ with ‘archers’. I also saw mention that the arches were historically a symbol for royalty and that Richard III’s emblem was that of a boar. The Richard III bit seems more coincidence than meaningful to me. It’s also not certain if the speaker feels hemmed in, if the marshes are hemmed in, or if the Queen is hemmed in. Regardless, what we have here are biting comment on the Queen written much more poetically than usual pop and rock lyrics.

Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing

Near the middle of the album, “I Know It’s Over” possibly received the most plays throughout my twenties. This so slow jazzy blues number tells of loneliness and lost love. Even more so, what the speaker has lost is love, but the possibility of a love to another. “I know it’s over and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real.” Her pending marriage drives home the truth that he will never be loved. He bitterly warns the groom, “Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly, though she needs you more than she loves you.” Though, it’s clear that he’s not speaking to the groom directly. All of these conversations are imagined from an empty room “as I climb into an empty bed.”

Musically the song rolls through the 50s chord progression (I-vi-IV-V) at a slow tempo starting at about 70 BPM and rising to about 76 BPM for the climactic coda. The drums are minimal through most of the track, focusing mostly on a jazz-inspired use of cymbals and tapping the rim. The electric guitars gently strum chords giving plenty of room for the vocals.

Of course, I could go on and on about one of my long-time favorite records.