If there was ever a member of Phish that I had hopes of being
something more than a long-haired, jam band freak, it was most definitely
Mike Gordon. To his credit, he's done some fantastic projects,
including the amazing albums he has recorded with acoustic guitar
virtuoso Leo Kottke. So when the opportunity presented itself
to hear his latest record The Green Sparrow on firmly established
folk music label Rounder Records, I had high hopes, and figured I'd
give it a shot.
Unfortunately for me, the first song on the record was a meandering,
although musically clever, jammy song with deeply entrenched Grateful
Dead sounds. I was a bit bummed. How could a musician move past
this and do greater things and then fall back into it so easily? I
chalked it up to comfort and figured I'd probably skip ahead a couple
songs just to make sure Gordon was really falling into old traps so
easily. But something happened when "Voices" started
even though the music had that jam band type of sound, there was more
here than Phish had ever quite done
the vocal effects and neatly
understated syncopation of the song caught me up, and I was pulled
in. The bouncing melody of "Traveled Too Far" is downright
infectious (like all three great Phish songs), while the counter-rhythmic
trickery of "Morphing Again" has an almost Paul Simon-esque
vibe going, as it moves from phase to phase, swapping guitar lines
with drum rolls in a catchy interplay.
The songs on The Green Sparrow have that same joyful playfulness
that so many of Phish's songs contained, but there is a limit to their
meandering presence as the songs that Gordon has written for the record
are, by and large, more focused and cohesive than much of his prior
band's catalog. "Dig Further Down" shows that Gordon is
more willing to experiment with rhythms within a rock context. The
story of the tune is worded cleverly, giving an obvious glimpse into
the maturing songwriting that has been occurring in the mind of Mike
Gordon. This song has a fully realized rock band sound, replete with
grooving organs that underlie solid rhythms and gritty electric guitars.
Scattered throughout the record are the kinds of tones that Phish
was known for, leaving no doubt that Gordon, who produced the album
himself with help from a couple of others, knows exactly how instruments
are supposed to sound on record.
While Gordon's musical virtuosity has never really been in question,
his songwriting has improved considerably, as the songs on The
Green Sparrow clearly show. He still lives in a bed of jam band
glory, which only makes sense, as this is where his fanbase truly
lies, and where his roots were built. But for those willing to look
past a little bit of noodling and that chorus-y, late Grateful dead
vibe song structure, there are truly some fine songs to be found here.
Gordon isn't just a one trick pony, or an able sideman to great guitarists,
he is truly a fine musician in his own right and this latest solo
record is proof that greaster things are yet in store for him
and for you.
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