Record review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged: Deluxe Edition (2013 Reissue)


Man, it took a long time for Eric Clapton to become cool again. Since the mid-sixties when the words “Clapton is God” were daubed on London walls in reference to the then Bluesbreakers’ member’s skills, the man born Eric Patrick Clapton in 1945 has been considered a master of the guitar and one of the most important axe-slingers to have stepped onto a stage. However, there was a patch after around 1970 when Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs came out that the quality of his output went decidedly downhill. After the epic brilliance of his work with Cream and Derek and the Dominos, he began the seventies crushed by the death of Jimi Hendrix, before going on to have a string of affairs, make some unsavoury and racist remarks onstage while drunk, take a poorly misguided stab at reggae, and be labelled a dinosaur by a punk movement hell-bent on destroying the old guard.

After several more patchy albums throughout the eighties and the death of his four year-old son in 1991, he managed to reinvent himself with this classic entry into the MTV Unplugged series, which is perhaps bettered only by Nirvana’s effort, and he did it without really seeming to try that hard; maybe that’s what makes it so good.

Reinvention is most definitely the word to describe what is happening on this re-released, expanded edition of the original 1992 recording, as the finely executed ‘Lonely Stranger’ benefits from a softer approach, and the classic ‘Layla’ is heavily reworked, with Clapton challenging the English audience to “try to spot this one” before a heavy roar erupts as the lyrics kick in.

Elsewhere, Clapton takes his eight-piece band through a series of old blues and rock ‘n’ roll numbers including Jimmy Cox’s Depression-era classic ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, the brilliant Ellas Otha Bates’s (a.k.a. Bo Diddley’s) ‘Before You Accuse Me’, and Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Hey Hey’. But perhaps most special is Clapton’s tribute to his deceased son, ‘Tears In Heaven’; if there’s any song that will give you a lump in your throat, it’s this one. The fact that it was written and performed when the emotional wounds of his son’s death were still so prominent make it all the more heart-wrenching. With his mojo well and truly returned, Clapton’s output would take a sharp upwards turn from here on.

Extras here include six previously unreleased tracks (remastered), and an optional album and concert DVD option, which is worth getting just to see how smoothly the old master pulls it off. It’s been more than twenty years since this album heralded somewhat of a return for Clapton, and this re-release is a timely reminder of its – and his – brilliance.


Record review: Van Morrison – Moondance: Expanded Edition (2013, Reissue)

Van Morrison

How do you describe a stone cold classic album like George Ivan Morrison’s Moondance? The answer is you don’t; it describes you. Using words on a document to discuss the ins and outs of a collection of tracks that absolutely embody the very fabric of music itself is like trying to make the wind blow or sun shine. There are so few albums that can arguably be put into a category above and beyond the normal “masterpiece” slot into a level of a kind of transcendental majesty, and Moondance – Morrison’s 1970 second solo album – is certainly one of them.

Ranked at 65th spot on Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’, if that means anything at all, Moondance was recorded only a few short months after the release of another classic, Morrison’s brilliant debut Astral Weeks, near Woodstock in upstate New York. Its blending of R&B, folk, soul, rock and jazz; all wired through its intensely controlling writer’s Celtic, stream of consciousness style, makes for some seriously special results.

Opener ‘And It Stoned Me’ is a beautifully narrated tale from Morrison’s childhood and the best song here. In 1985 he said “I suppose I was about twelve years old. We used to go to a place called Ballystockart to fish. We stopped in the village on the way up to this place and I went to this little stone house, and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from the stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this ‘other dimension’. That’s what the song is about.” The perfectly-paced track is perfectly constructed so as to allow the listener to float alongside the young Van as he makes his way through that countryside day in Northern Ireland. The addition of a lightly tinkling piano solo and subtly twining saxophones, and Morrison’s fixation on the glass of water “carried from the mountain stream” all add to the overall effect of a near-perfect childhood memory.

The title track is next, and despite the instant change of style to a song with an unmistakable jazz swing, Morrison’s voice makes it a smooth transition. There’s even a flute over-dub behind the vocals that gives the track a lighter air to go with the walking bass line. Fourth track ‘Caravan’ is another bona fide classic. The song – playing on Morrison’s fixation with gypsies – features yet more wonderfully descriptive lyrics. “And the caravan is painted red and white; that means everyone’s staying overnight, ” he sings, although it has to be said that the live version on The Last Waltz with The Band is probably even better (later track ‘Brand New Day’ is said to be inspired by The Band also). ‘Into The Mystic’ again explores the idea of the ‘gypsy soul’ in ethereal fashion, and ‘These Dreams Of You’ has the trademark Morrison groove that makes his live performances so special. Closer ‘Glad Tidings’ is his warning about the music industry and the trappings of celebrity lifestyle; ideas that Morrison has stayed true to over forty years later.

In terms of extras for this expanded edition, it’s what surrounds the songs that is most intriguing. From Morrison making false starts on ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’ and getting crabby with his band, to snapshots of multiple takes of each song, and alternate takes that are just as good as the album versions; there’s plenty here to keep Van fans intrigued.

Forty-three years later and every song on Moondance still sounds bloody amazing. That’s why it’s a classic album.

Record review: Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way: Deluxe Edition (2013, LP)

Lenny Kravitz

You know that feeling when you listen to an album that you used to love for the first time in years, and all those nostalgia-tinged memories of how good it is come flooding back in an instant? I just had one of those feelings, courtesy of New York multi-instrumentalist, multi-award winning, multi-bloody-everything, Lenny Kravitz.

First of all, it’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since the release of this bonafide classic album, Kravitz’s third after his 1989 debut Let Love Rule and 1991’s Mama Said. His recorded output up to that point had been a solid but not quite breakthrough series of soul and pop numbers; held back by their influences while their writer hadn’t yet found the boldness of his own voice. Are You Gonna Go My Way would change all that and establish Kravitz as the star he had been trying to be since 1988. It would be his first top-twenty album in the States, hit the top spot in Australia and the UK, and spawn five singles. As a result, there’s been no looking back for Kravitz ever since; he’s gone on to fill arenas the world over and even launch a film career.

Of course, the obvious focal point of this album is that guitar riff in the title track and opener. It’s a bombastic riff inspired by Hendrix and Prince and often pops up in those top ten riffs of all time lists that guitar magazines like to publish from time to time. In short, it rocks, but like Kravitz’s entire career, this is an eclectic album in terms of sounds and styles, unbound by genre or trend.

Second track ‘Believe’ is an orchestral ballad that is a nice cool-down after the frenetic pace of ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’, while ‘Heaven Help’ heaps a spoonful of soul over things, and ‘Just Be A Woman’ is the tearful acoustic number that Kravitz tends to throw in on every release. ‘Black Girl’ couldn’t sound more ’70s if it tried, but while there are many fairly obvious influences at work here, it’s all top quality stuff.

Deluxe editions and reissues are often nothing more than an underhanded attempt to squeeze more dollars out of the record-buying public, but the extras included here are well worth getting your teeth into. They include twenty extra tracks, instrumentals, acoustic versions, and a fifteen-minute radio interview from the era, making 31 tracks in all. It’s been twenty years but this album still sounds amazing.