BRIAN HOUSTON Sugar Queen (Brian Houston Songs)

If Brian Kennedy were ever able to sever the ties that seem to bind him to Van Morrison’s coattails, he might sound as individual and original as his near-namesake Mr Houston. Yes, Houston’s love of Van The Man’s music is apparent from every pit and flat on “Sugar Queen”, his ninth album but the first to be released in mainland Britain. But he tempers his homages with a throaty, corroded Belfast burr and lyrics of unflinching honesty.

“End Of The Beginning” probes the dying embers of a relationship and offers the healing prospect of something tiny but phoenix-like emerging from the ashes. If the autobiographical “Childish Things” sounds naggingly familiar its closing quote from Van’s “Caravan” provides delightful closure: in the pantheon of musicians who’ve plundered the Morrison songbook to enhance their Celtic credentials it happily veers closer to The Waterboys than David Gray. (And Houston sings of his father, “He had a heart attack/He went to hell” – see what I mean about honesty?) The title track’s ear-catching arrangement sounds like a pale but pleasing impression of Nawlens gumbo, although “A Woman’s Touch” is a bit much of a mushness. On initial inspection “The Ballad Of Matthew Shepard” plays like a fractured, selective memory of “Brokeback Mountain”, yet actually recounts the horrific homophobic murder of the titular Wyoming country boy.

As an owner of a second-hand vinyl copy of “Saint Dominic’s Preview” I can’t help but feel some affinity with “These Days”, a song about, amongst other things, buying a second-hand vinyl copy of “Saint Dominic’s Preview”. Nevertheless, there’s an unsettling undercurrent here that suggests a female character with a broken, haunted backstory. She, or someone like her, returns on “Red Badge Of Courage”: “My lady’s got a red badge of courage/It’s the one thing that I’m sure she’d rather not have/When you ask me what war and what she ever got it for/I say bravery in the face of certain death”. It seems rudely intrusive but also tantalising to speculate on the meaning of these lines, especially given the time and place in which Houston lives, but it’s a measure of the strength of his songwriting that he keeps the listener so intrigued. A bootlegged live version of “It’s A New Year Baby” underscores Houston’s skill as a communicator, coercing the crowd into some community singing, improvising a new verse and lecturing on handclapping like he’s Art Garfunkel or sumpn.

Houston keeps some pretty heavy company here: Thea Gilmore harmonises on one song, Pretenders guitarist Robbie McIntosh plays throughout and Whispering Bob Harris contributes track sequencing and sleevenotes. Which is all sweet and dandy, but what matters more are Houston’s songs of pain and rehabilitation, of living in the real world and the compromises inherent in it.