If Van Morrison’s career had never progressed past his years with Them, he might still deserve his own chapter in the history of contemporary rock and roll. And that’s because his galvanizing presence, transcends the familiar trademarks of mid-Sixties stylists: a knowledge and reverence for blues roots and, at his/Them’s best, an intuitive grasp of the power of brevity intrinsic to the great pop song. The inclusion of Van Morrison’s own essay within The Complete Them 1964-1967, during which he shares vivid recollections from these early days, represents tangible proof of his commitment to the extensive archiving of his vast catalog, of which project this handsomely-designed three CD set is the first release.
With its graphics vividly hearkening to the mid-Sixties design and style, the graphics of the package echo the clarity of The Belfast Cowboy’s own liner notes. This comprehensive anthology augurs well for subsequent titles in the reissue series, while the coincidental release of expanded editions of famous entries in his discography from later years reaffirm a similar notion: far beyond the scope of any previous editions of this great artist’s work, these titles signal Van Morrison’s coming to terms with his past, as well as an effort on his part to reaffirm the legitimacy of his legacy. As if that were necessary….
CD 1 Them Complete:
Morrison and them cycle through all their virtues in very short order during the very first disc of the three in this comprehensive set. The modified shuffle that comprises the high-minded “Philosophy” effectively sets up the deceptive impact within that song and the ensuing performance of “Here Comes the Night.” Meanwhile, the contrast between verse and refrain on the latter, also carries the subtly sharp edge of the restless piece titled “Mystic Eyes;” perhaps the first recording to exhibit how the Belfast Cowboy can so deeply immerse himself in the moment, this cut’s also over so quickly because the circular guitar figures seem to sped up the passage of time.
CD 2 Them Complete: A similar sensation reoccurs repeatedly throughout The Complete Story of Them, in part because the moments of greatest intensity are spread out over the course of its three hours plus. Them’s covers of “Bright Lights Big City” and “I Put A Spell on You” are unlike other renditions in circulation, and even more so this rendition of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue:” while the author’s own take is from a distance, Morrison and company are in your face. The audio quality of these remastered recordings is a corollary to such immediacy, a quality all the more remarkable given the instability of the group as documented in the titular leader’s liner notes.
CD 3 Them Complete: While this set contains some repetition in terms of titles (from “Turn On Your Love Light” to “Gloria,”) an entire CD comprised of demos, alternate takes and live recordings from 1964-1967: (most previously unissued) serves the dual purpose of painting a complete picture of Them’s development and offering hints of the titular leader’s future leanings: it’s not a long stretch from the traditional folk roots of “Richard Cory” to the epochal Astral Weeks and, whether it’s deliberate or accidental, the continuity is obvious between Morrison’s own “One Two Brown Eyes” and the perennial “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Nor is it easy to miss the similarity between “The Story of Them” and the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side,” begging the question of how much Van and co might’ve benefited from some more astute management and image-making (the lack of which Morrison’s offhandedly references in his accompanying essay).
Astral Weeks: There is no other Van Morrison record quite like Astral Weeks and, in fact, because it so confounds easy labels and genre categorizations, it’s fair to say there is no other recording quite like it in the annals of contemporary rock. Recorded after the dissolution of the Irish band Them and a promising but ultimately frustrating start of solo endeavors highlighted by the bonafide classic “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison’s career continued with this recording of a dream sequence of original songs. Accompanied by a roster of musicians of including the Modern Jazz Quartet’s drummer of Connie Kay, the author conjures up the turbulence of ecstasy and anguish within the emotional undercurrents of songs such as “Cypress Avenue” and “Ballerina” with virtually uninterrupted continuity. Even the outtakes on this expanded edition, such as the longer versions of “Slim Slo Slider” for instance, conjure a charged atmosphere as the versions included on the album as it was originally released.
His Band & The Street Choir: Corey Frye’s economical but insightful liner notes within these two Warner/Rhino packages shed light on the circumstances of their creation and the pragmatic information he shares regarding His Band and The Street Choir is much more illuminating. Without an abundance of new material when called upon to record the followup to Moondance, there is in fact but one truly sterling cut on the record—though ”Domino” might well encapsulate Morrison’s persona as fully as any other tune in his discography–while the remainder of the material, such as the euphoric “Call Me Up in Dreamland” and the more contemplative “I’ll Be Your Lover too,” relies more on groove and mood. Still, the remastered sound on this disc clarifies the earthy camaraderie among the musicians, an attribute clearly not lost on the bandleader because, on the back cover photo of this smartly-designed digi pak, he’s pictured in the midst of his accompanists, smiling as widely and sincerely as he ever has over the course of his career.