Hugh Morrison,
Robert Burns Rocks
(Dun Eistein, 2010)

Robert Burns tribute discs are not exactly in short supply. Thus, one presumes, the title of Robert Burns Rocks is more marketing strategy than characterization of content or, worse, idiot-speak for "cool" or "entertaining." Occasional up-tempo arrangements and percussion aside, it's not really a rock album -- in other words, you won't confuse this with a hard-driving Pogues record -- and the band that backs vocalist Hugh Morrison would comfortably fit any number of acts currently playing modernized versions of Scottish and Irish folk music.

Lamentable title aside, Morrison's CD amounts to a satisfying exercise. I know little about Morrison except that he's a Scot -- something anyone with ears will detect the moment he launches into the opening "Leezy Lindsay" -- with a reputation as an exceptional button-accordion player. These days, he lives in Texas; Rocks was cut in Houston, not a place one associates with British Isles music, though there is something of an audience for it, with performers to match, in the Lone Star state.

Sometimes compared to Bob Dylan, Burns (1759-1796), Scotland's national poet, collected folk songs and set his own poetry, often laced with quotes from the tradition, to venerable rural melodies. On his 1997 recording Time Out of Mind, Dylan paid his own idiosyncratic tribute to Burns with "Highlands," which borrows a line or two from Burns' "Farewell to the Highlands." Morrison, incidentally, offers a charmingly idiosyncratic version of "Farewell" here.

Unlike many Burns interpreters, Morrison refuses to prettify the music. His singing, at once whisky-soaked and unpretentious (if, truth be told, recognizably Shane MacGowan-shaped), gives the impression of being casually tossed off. Of course, if it actually were, it wouldn't sound nearly this good. More suited to pub and dance-hall than to the chamber-music stage, the arrangements convey warmth and immediacy. If you're in the market for another collection of Burns songs, you'll find this one different in the right ways.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 April 2011

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