Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. — Lester Bangs, 1979
I was so shocked when I was teaching a seminar at Princeton just a couple years ago, and out of 16 students, four of them said their favorite album was Astral Weeks. Now, how did it enter their lives? We’re talking about an album that was recorded well before they were born, and yet it spoke to them. They understood its language as soon as they heard it. — Greil Marcus, 2009
To paraphrase the singer of “Sweet Thing,” Astral Weeks is dynamite and we don’t know why. The album Van Morrison created in his early twenties has detonated in more psyches than thousands of better known works, but when its biggest fans try to explain its greatness, more often than not, their tongues get tied every time they try to speak.
Morrison had moved eons beyond “Brown Eyed Girl” when he went into New York’s Century Sound Studios in the fall of 1968. While the jazz musicians recruited for the session “more or less sat there and jammed” (drummer Connie Kay’s words), Morrison sang his songs of nature and grace, love and death and rebirth, and together they spun out an incomprehensible work of genius. The album failed to chart on its release, but those who needed to know passed it on to those who needed to know, and more than thirty years later, it went gold – and never has the word “gold” seemed more worthless next to the raw emotion Astral Weeks conveys and inspires.
A Full Album of all eight Astral Weeks songs as covered by others is going to suffer in comparison to the original, but it also gets across the breadth and depth of impact these songs have. Polished studio efforts, rough bedroom demos, a live track, loud tracks, quiet tracks, following the tracks of the man who blazed a trail, some daring to get closer than it was safe to get, some unable to gaze directly into the work, all of them speaking the unspeakable as best they can in an effort to depict the transcendence the music gave to them. Maybe they’ll pass some of it along to you.
MP3: Secret Machines – Astral Weeks (Van Morrison cover)
The Secret Machines take Morrison’s album-opening title track and expand its sound to arena-filling levels. It’s a much different kind of power than what the original offers, but no less valid; where Van lifted hearts and souls, this cover brings people to their feet. Either way, a listener can’t help but be stirred by the song.
MP3: Headband – Beside You (Van Morrison cover)
On a cold winter night in 2010, Kelly Schirmann sat down to record her own version of Astral Weeks as a gift for a friend. Two hours later, she had the end result, which she later said “makes me so sad my guts hurt to hear it.” Speaking of Morrison’s album in an interview, she does a great job expressing its power: “When I listen to this album I can feel it in my whole body. It makes my heart and head hurt. And it makes me feel a hard kind of longing that I both completely identify with and also can’t ever put my finger on.” The rest of the interview’s worth your time, and so is the rest of her album, released under her solo name Headband. “Beside You” is just a simple sample.
MP3: Joe Louis Walker – Sweet Thing (Van Morrison cover)
When asked his take on the Waterboys’ cover of “Sweet Thing” in a 1990 Rolling Stone interview, Morrison responded, “Well, it’s not as good as mine, now is it?” One would guess he’d feel the same way about Joe Louis Walker’s blues/soul cover, from 2002’s Pasa Tiempo; on the other hand, one might also guess that he’d like what he heard.
MP3: Vincent Lauwereins – Cyprus Avenue (Van Morrison cover)
We had to go all the way to Belgium for a quality cover of “Cyprus Avenue,” turning up this one by one Vincent Lauwereins of Antwerp. He’s now in a band called Brenner, but before that he was in his bedroom recording some milkteeth originals and some covers of his favorites, just like any aspiring musician. He admitted that this in-the-moment cover was “the only one I’m satisfied with,” and well he might be. If you’d like to try his others, visit his Soundcloud page.
MP3: Jeff Buckley – The Way Young Lovers Do (Van Morrison cover)
There are a few good covers of “The Way Young Lovers Do” out there – favorites include the versions done by My Toys Like Me and Maria McKee – but facts are facts: just as surely as Jeff Buckley owns THE cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” he owns THE cover of “The Way Young Lovers Do,” and it would be churlish not to give his scatting and his acoustic thrashing their deserved place in the spotlight. If you’ve not yet heard this, get ready to strap yourself in and step on the exhilarator.
MP3: Energy Orchard – Madame George (Van Morrison cover)
Energy Orchard were a band from the early ’90s based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and when you’re a band that shares its hometown with Van Morrison, it’s well nigh inevitable that you should feel his influence. Their cover of Astral Weeks‘ centerpiece “Madame George” is a nice, thoughtful reading, even if it doesn’t match the original’s feeling of being the album’s focal point.
MP3: Gov’t Mule – Ballerina (Van Morrison cover)
When thinking of a genre that would be a good match for the songs on Astral Weeks, Southern-rock jam band isn’t the kind of sound that springs to mind. Don’t tell that to Gov’t Mule, though – on their 2005 EP Mo’ Voodoo, they embrace “Ballerina,” giving a deeply felt performance that’s just as stately as the original, but in its own way.
MP3: Johnny Rivers – Slim Slow Slider (Van Morrison cover)
Johnny Rivers, of “Secret Agent Man” fame, was a big fan of Astral Weeks. How big? He not only recorded a good wholesome cover of “Slim Slow Slider” in 1970, he named his album after it (well, mostly – for some reason, it’s called Slim Slo Slider). The same album also has a great cover of “Into the Mystic,” but we’ll save that story for another day…