Mike Gordon


How to build an individual identity which can also work as a viable commercial entity apart from the mega-group that gave one fame and fortune is a challenge that many famous names - from David Gilmour to Mick Jagger - were confronted with.

And the same is true, of course, when it comes to the members of US rock quartet Phish, a giant live attraction in the 90s, still a quite respectable commercial entity to this day.

One could argue that the fact that Trey Anastasio - the guitar player, and singer, who penned about 90% of the music performed by the group - proved to be the most successful member of the group when it comes to formulating a fresh individual identity is not terribly surprising, except for the fact that Anastasio's solo career has showed stylistic traits that, while not completely alien from the music performed by Phish, inhabit very different climates. True, Anastasio as a solo artist has produced his share of so-so material, the recent Traveler (2012) as an album that while not being entirely successful has to be admired for his daring choices. But Anastasio has always avoided easy moves.

When compared to Anastasio, the other members of Phish have proved to be very reluctant leaders, also not very prolific writers.

Bass player and singer Mike Gordon can write original songs, while his love for traditional American music such as Bluegrass, and his strong affinity for Calypso-influenced climates are a strong ingredient of his songs. Of course, an ingredient that proves to be "a change of pace" in a group's output can prove to be "not enough" when it comes to sustaining a solo career.

Simplifying things a bit, this has proved to be Gordon's dilemma: whether to cultivate a personal aesthetic which is not commercial enough to build a career upon, or to perfect a kind of "Phish-light" formula with a larger appeal but which, in light of its ingredients, will be forever compared to the music of the group.

Two brilliant extra episodes are the fruit of his collaboration with guitarist Leo Kottke: Clone (2002), and Sixty Six Steps (2005).

His first solo album proper, Inside in (2003) is a bizarre work that still sounds great, trombones and steel guitars going hand-by-hand with Gordon's unmistakable humor. The album was just a studio work, though.

Released five years later, The Green Sparrow was a great step forward, Gordon showing great chops and maturity both on (electric) guitar and various keyboards. Though a kind of "Phish" aroma was impossible to avoid, the music sounded quite personal, and ready to be performed on stage. An album that still sounds good - interested readers will have no trouble finding my in-depth review.

Interested readers won't find my review of Gordon album #3, though. To me, Moss (2010) sounded like a tired replica of The Green Sparrow, almost like Gordon had put the tracks that sounded best on this album, instead featuring on Moss all those tracks that had been recorded at a time when all musicians were tired, and ready to go home. Let's not forget, though, that by then Phish had regrouped for the second time, releasing Joy (2009). So it's quite likely that by this time Gordon's priorities had changed.

It looks like in the new phase of their career Phish prefer to concentrate all group efforts in a compressed time frame. So when it comes to "life on the road" it looks like the previous "never-ending tour" that was typical of the first chapter in the life of the group is now a thing of the past. And so, while we wait for their new album, produced by Bob Ezrin, to be released, Mike Gordon has found the time to record his solo album #4, taking it onstage in a brief tour.

Gordon penned all the material with (guitarist and singer) Scott Murawski, who's been a member of Gordon's group for quite some time now. It goes without saying that this is a choice not entirely devoid of risks.

While many instruments - such as organ, accordion, percussion, and pedal steel - are featured on the album, all played by competent musicians, the most important decision when it comes to the album sounding good has to do with the chosen drummer, who's Matt Chamberlain (whom I listened to for the very first time on Fiona Apple's debut album, Tidal, from 1996). Chamberlain is a good timekeeper and a fine "colourist". Also a fine practitioner of the creation of live loops, and one of the first drummers alongside Butch Vig to adopt this strategy. Chamberlain sports a long list of collaborations. (His most recent at the time of this writing being, I think, his performing with Soundgarden, Matt Cameron being busy with Pearl Jam).

Production and engineering are by Paul Q. Kolderie, who needs no introduction. The album sounds fine, with a good first floor by drums and guitars - here the bass contribution is more streamlined, with a different task, compared to what it's usually played by Gordon - and vocals above, sitting well in the track.

As it was to be expected, the weak point are the songs, the repertory here sounding not too far from what I'd call "generic American rock". Songs are quite short - eleven tracks for a bit less than 50' - though I'm sure there will be solos live.

While definitely not a snooze-fest, the album sounded boring to me, and a poor competitor to the Spring blue sky outside my window. Murawski's vocals are a bit ho-hum, and there's a dated "70s FM rock radio" groove the does not definitely help. Above all, this is an album that lacks ambition, and which never sounds convinced of its own "necessity".

A quick look at the songs.

Ether starts with effects, acoustic guitar arpeggios, vocals. It has a lazy groove, mid-tempo, a formula that's repeated several times on the album. The chorus reminded me a bit of Paul McCartney "rock", la Maybe I'm Amazed.

Tiny Little World is a vivacious mid-tempo, which reminded me of mid-70s Steve Miller Band. A fine groove, this one will play great live.

Jumping has a bluegrass melody played as a rock song, with fine acoustic/electric guitars, la Who's Next.

Yarmouth Road is a fine reggae, with a puzzling arrangement choice: the talk-box here sounds a bit too close for comfort to the one featured on Haitian Divorce by Steely Dan (played by Dean Parks and Walter Becker).

Say Something is an ordinary track, with mediocre falsetto.

Face is a "funk" track la Mike Gordon, with fine bass and drums.

Paint is another mid-tempo, it reminded me of Phish.

Different World has Mike Gordon on vocals, acoustic guitars, and the accordion.

Peel is a welcome note on the album, a fine mix of psychedelia and bluegrass.

Long Black Line has a mid-tempo groove halfway between Grateful Dead and Phish. There's a guitar solo with wha-wha (here Trey Anastasio definitely comes to mind).

Surface sports fine acoustic and electric guitars, and a very fine bass part. It's a good album close.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2014

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 10, 2014