War of Wills
If Chris Isaak traded in his rockabilly shtick for some country duds, the result would probably sound a lot like Justin Morrissey's new CD, A War of Wills. That's not to say that Morrissey is an Isaak clone, even though on "Nighttime Falls" he mimics his breathy but direct bedroom falsetto, as if he were trying to seduce listeners one by one. And on the lonesome, weary title track, the vocal resemblance- in tone and affectation -is startling. But more consistently Morrissey shares with the surfer and boxer an unfailing vocal sincerity and tremulousness; an ear for mood and smooth, concise production; an allegiance to genre that sometimes feels more comfortable than purposeful; and buffed, polished songs that could benefit from a few rough edges. (For a better, if lesser-known, idiomatic match, think Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash.) It's little surprise, then, that the most conventionally satisfying thing on A War of Wills is a live recording of "Home" from KUNI radio. Aside from the track's heightened intensity -a function of both song and setting- it sounds almost primitive, with a necessarily crude mix compared to the rest of the album, with it's delicate and rigorous arrangements. "Home" is right in the middle on the 12-tune album, and it's the sort of extra that's normally tacked on a record as a bonus track. It's placement on A War of Wills suggests that the contrast with the rest of the CD is important. The incongruity is effective -impossible to ignore- but it also highlights some of the energy that's sacrificed for artfulness on the CD. This is the type of note-perfect recording on which the vivid bitterness of a song with the title "Angel Pissin' on My Heart" get's washed away by the warm stream of the pedal-steel guitar. Fortunately, the craft of the album is often lovely. On "City of Wall," the banjo in the left channel and the accordion in the right make for a soft bed for Morrissey's vocals and the harmony tracks. The lyrics on the album mine familiar territory and are often vague and elliptical to connect, but the singer/songwriter regularly nails the telling detail that can elevate a song -"Selling crystalline figures of flowers," for example. The sleepy piano ballad "Half Truths" builds almost imperceptibly, with wispy harmony vocals joining as the percussion and piano wake up, giving the impression of a slouch growing into good posture. The change is natural, and the song is restrained and mature. Throughout, Morrissey's use of harmony vocals -by Heidi Sallows- is heavenly, balancing the male with the female and adding light resonance. The subtlety means that A War of Wills rarely grabs your attention, but close listening often reveals a sublime work. -by Jeff Ignatius 08/08/07 publication of the River Cities Reader Davenport, Iowa.
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