The Philosopher's Stone

Van Morrison

Polydor Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Admittedly, I don't know a lot about Van Morrison. Unlike many other artists in the Pierce Archive, there is damned little of Morrison's music lining the walls. Oh, it's not that I don't like his music - in fact, I have enjoyed a lot of what I've heard him do. But there's the problem: I haven't heard much, save for the usual singles and The Best Of Van Morrison that I bought some years ago.

So starting with a collection of outtakes, The Philosopher's Stone, might not be the smartest move for me, the diehard Morrison fan might think. As it turns out, after listening to this two-tape compilation, I am that much more inspired to pick up more of Morrison's catalog than before. If the majority of these 30 tracks were just tossed away, then what he put out has to be damned incredible.

The styles on this set run from the jazzy-rock Morrison became well-known for to all-out blues to beautiful ballads - even into spoken-word at one point! While such a hopscotch over genres might have sank any other artist, it almost feels natural for Morrison.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A gentler side of Morrison is quickly evident, and is heard on tracks like "Wonderful Remark", a 1973 recording featuring Ronnie Montrose on guitar. But instead of fiery guitar work, the spotlight is placed on a flute solo running through the body of the song, which brings out the track's beauty. Other of the gentler songs that stick out are "Not Supposed To Break Down," "Madame Joy" and "I Have Finally Come To Realise".

Morrison also saves two tracks as darts against the evil music industry balloon, "Drumshanbo Hustle" (which I found pretty amusing) and "Showbuisiness," which isn't as powerful. I almost wonder if "For Mr. Thomas" would qualify under the same category, but I didn't seem to pick up that kind of venom on the track.

There are only two tracks on The Philosopher's Stone that leave little question as to why they were cut. "Steeping Out Queen Part 2" isn't a terrible track, but it almost seems to capture Morrison trying to find the mood of the song with spoken asides. "John Henry," a modern version of the American folktale, is an all-out failure, though - Morrison should have known better not to first sound like Dr. John and then try to scream as if he was pulling his own lungs out.

But only two small stumbles on such a vast collection is well above average, and it leaves me questioning why many of these tracks never made it to albums prior to this. "Really Don't Know" would have somehow fit into the mood of Moondance, while "Laughing In The Wind," "Lover's Prayer" and "Joyous Sound" would have most likely been radio hits for Morrison. Even the Irish jig-like "High Spirits" that closes the album would have had potential, what with the Riverdance craze that has swept this country in the last few years.

The biggest obstacle The Philosopher's Stone has to face is that some might consider it primarily a "for-the-fans" package. In truth, this set might pull in many more new fans if they give it a fair shake. I know that after listening to the set, I'm already checking my reference guides to see what other albums I can acquire. (Hmm... is a trip to the used record store this weekend possible?)

The Philosopher's Stone demonstrates that "outtake" does not mean bad music. These mostly excellent tracks just didn't make Morrison's quality cut - a fact which should make the rest of his discography must-own material.

Rating: A-

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Polydor Records, and is used for informational purposes only.