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** VAN MORRISON, "The Healing Game," Exile/Polydor

March 02, 1997|Natalie Nichols

It is perhaps not surprising that, after more than 30 years in the business, legendary Irish rock singer-songwriter Van Morrison would seem to be coasting. Still, it is a shame that an artist renowned for his vocal passion sounds so halfhearted on his 27th and latest solo recording.

While Morrison's production is '90s-pop slick, the album is rooted in soul and R&B nostalgia, including among its 10 tracks homages to the Drifters ("It Once Was My Life") and the Platters ("If You Love Me"). The band, featuring the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney and Irish pop patriarch Phil Coulter, weaves a rustic sensibility around intricate piano, acoustic guitar, horn and backing vocal arrangements. Nevertheless, this blend of blues, gospel, folk and rock is as memorable as elevator music. Morrison's voice dominates the mix, but some fans may find themselves wishing once again that he'd forgo the unnecessary backup singers.

Then again, Morrison's singing isn't terribly inspiring. His voice has a presence, but it feels muffled, half-asleep, as if he's testifying without full devotion to the word. He comes on stronger in the swinging R&B anthem "Burning Ground" and the troubled ballad "This Weight," but he never exerts himself too much.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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