Monday, March 06, 2006

Van Morrison's Pay The Devil: The Belfast Cowboy Goes Country

By: David Schultz

Most famous as the face and voice of Celtic soul, Van Morrison has never flinched from exploring other musical genres. At various points in his career, Morrison has ventured into the realm of jazzy meditations, reflected upon religious spirituality, dabbled in skiffle and nurtured his infatuation with the classic standards of the 30s and 40s. Oftentimes, the determination of whether Van makes it work lies in the ear of the beholder. With his latest album, Pay The Devil, Van approaches the music of the American South, mostly country, with the same sensibility of his past projects. Rather than adapt to the genre, Van forces the genre to adapt to him.

On Pay The Devil, Morrison covers an eclectic selection of country and western based songs and even writes a couple of his own. Although nowhere near the achievement, Morrison's piqued interest in country music bears similarity with U2's exploration into American blues in Rattle And Hum. However, their attitudes towards the respective genres differ. While U2 assimilated Americana into its Irish soul, Morrison forces the veneer of his Celtic roots onto country. Pay The Devil consists of Van Morrison singing country songs but not of Van Morrison singing country music.

While the years have been kind to Morrison's voice, the warm and intimate vocal style associated with his earlier material no longer suits the Irish singer. Relying primarily on the power of his voice, Morrison lets loose in short bursts, keeping the vocal harmonies to a minimum. For the most part, his latter-day musical phrasing style fits the country genre quite well. Throughout Devil, Morrison's voice remains rarely changes register, but then again, his vocal range has never varied dramatically over his career.

Rather than embody the tortured heart and battered pride inherent in the classics "There Stands The Glass" and Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," Morrison sings them with the voice of pride. Bringing too much of a sense of joy to otherwise reflective songs, Morrison seems to celebrate the majesty of the song rather than convey the feelings underlying them. However, Morrison has not missed the point completely, finding the emotional center of George Jones' "Things Have Gone To Pieces" and Conway Twitty's "What Am I Living For."

"My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" (once recorded by Louis Armstrong) and Morrison's own "Pay The Devil" conjure up the incongruous image of Van doing the do-si-do in front of the knee slapping bluegrass guitars and fiddles but they also mesh best with Morrison's brash style. Sounding a bit like leftovers from his prior albums, the other Morrison penned songs "This Has Got To Stop" and "Playhouse" diverge from the country motif Morrison has crafted.

It's hard to tell how seriously Morrison approached his foray into country music. He recorded the album in Ireland without ever visiting Nashville or recruiting any country steeped studio musicians. Consequently, the band's attempts to produce an authentic twang occasionally sound like they should be supporting Jimmy Buffett in a Margaritaville tavern. Without question, Pay The Devil could have benefited from some authentic southern influence. Country purists are unlikely to embrace this album. However, Morrison purists will find it enjoyable, though not revelatory.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!