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(Sony Legacy 06837 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/16/2007)
The music world is full of former members of popular bands that have broken up. Their subsequent commercial success is highly variable. People like Sting and Peter Gabriel have enjoyed considerable popularity, while other individual members of formerly hit bands have slipped into obscurity. In some ways, it depends on how prominent a part the individual member plays. The front person of the band, the lead vocalist and/or principal songwriter seem to have the most success, due in part to their recognition.
On the other hand, a jam band is very much a team effort, and the better the band, the more closely the members depend on each other musically. So what happens when a jam band goes their separate ways is anyone's guess. The most popular jam band of the 1990s revival of the style was Phish, who decided to adjourn a couple of years back. Since then, the individual members have been appearing with solo projects. The most prominent was guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio, who was the closest thing to a front-man Phish had. Bassist Mike Gordon has released a couple of recordings, including a joint album with guitarist Leo Kotte. And now, keyboard man Page McConnell is out with his debut solo album, and interestingly, a lyrical theme running through the recording is considering life after the breakup of the band.
Page McConnell says that when Phish started the members were in their late teens and early 20s, and their meteoric popularity kept the members in a virtual whirlwind, either on the road, -- they were famously known for their relentless touring -- and their memorable live performances, or in the studio, making their next album, or doing publicity for that album. When the band broke up, McConnell apparently did some introspection, took a fair amount of time off, and thought about possibly launching a completely different career. But he ultimately decided to continue to concentrate on music, and began work on a solo album.
Of course, like most so-called "solo" projects, it involved a fair number of other people. In fact, all the members of Phish make appearances, though not all at once. The closest they come is on a couple of tracks with guitarist Anastasio, and bassist Mike Gordon, though with the drumming of Jim Keltner. Elsewhere, Phish Drummer Jon Fishman makes several appearances.
The CD Page McConnell, started out with recordings in McConnell's own basement in Vermont, but the project also spread to a studio in Brooklyn. In addition to all the other members of Phish at different times, drummer Keltner, who has been a busy studio drummer for more than three decades, is frequently heard. On guitar is Adam Zimmon, who has worked with McConnell previously, and Jared Smoloff who also did the engineering of the recording. McConnell, who rarely sang with Phish, does the lead vocals throughout this CD, and his singing can be charitably described as "honest." It's not a very impressive voice, but he does have a certain degree of charm. Instrumentally the CD is stronger. McConnell is probably most frequently heard on the acoustic piano, though he does bring out a variety of vintage style synthesizers, good for some ambience, and does play a fair amount of the old Wurlitzer electric piano that people have come to associate with Memphis soul. Several tracks do end up in jam territory, taking off after the lyrics have said their piece, but the jams can fall short of the level of Phish, sometimes resembling the hit or miss instrumental breeze-shooting of the Grateful Dead. So this is not exactly a virtuosic album, but it does have it does have its appeal, especially for the legions of fans Phish has still out there.
The CD opens with a piece called Beauty of a Broken Heart, which according to McConnell, he was working on writing while Phish was still together. Its message is that good things can come out of adversity. <<>>
The CD's biggest jam is, interestingly, placed second on the CD, rather than toward the end which would seem logical. The title is Heavy Rotation, a reference to the practice by many commercial radio stations of musical repetition. The song considers life after being in a band that got "heavy rotation." <<>> The jam part features McConnell on largely acoustic piano, while the band lays down a slightly funky beat. The track features Phish bassist Mike Gordon. <<>>
About the closest the CD comes to a singer-songwriter style track is Maid Marian, about the complexities of personal relationships, and the differences between aspirations and realism. <<>>
The 2006 tabloid story of the so-called runaway bride, who bolted on her wedding day, turns into the subject of a song. The tune is indeed called Runaway Bride, and McConnell's words take a somewhat sympathetic attitude, while the musical accompaniment features some assorted electronic sounds. The track features three-fourths of Phish: McConnell, bassist Gordon, and guitarist Trey Anastasio. The drummer here is the redoubtable Jim Keltner. <<>>
A CD by a member of Phish would not be complete without an extended instrumental jam, and this album features a track called Back in the Basement. The title is a reference to the recording site for a fair portion of the CD, McConnell's basement. Unfortunately, this is hardly the most musically interesting jam that Phish, or McConnell has done. The word "noodling" comes to mind. Again, the personnel is three-quarters of Phish with Jim Keltner on the drums. <<>>
The Phish member who was not heard on those other tracks, drummer Jon Fishman, makes his appearance a piece called Close to Home. He adds some interesting percussives, including what can at times resemble a marching band beat. <<>>
The quirkiest piece on the CD is called Complex Wind, an odd mix of psychedelic art rock with techno rhythms just under the surface. <<>>
The CD ends with Everyone But Me another fairly eclectic piece that mixes lyrics that are somewhere between introspective and sardonic, with a jam band instrumental sensibility. <<>>
Page McConnell's new CD that bears his name as a title is likely to be eagerly anticipated by the legions of fans of his band Phish, especially since all of the other members of the band make appearances on it. It's an enjoyable recording that reflects the combination of good musicianship with bits of whimsy that mark Phish's albums. He sings perhaps with a bit of self-absorption about his life after Phish, but it's generally good-natured. Despite the good combination of musicians, I'm definitely left with an impression instrumentally, that McConnell and his colleagues have done better in the past. Some of the jams do wander off a bit. But it's generally worthwhile and well done.
Our grade for sound quality is a "B, plus" with points deducted for its sometimes in-your-face, overly compressed sound. But that's nothing new on the pop music scene, especially given that this is a major label release.
Page McConnell, the CD, is an easy-going jam-band recording by one of the familiar names in the genre, but in terms of musicianship and originality, it falls somewhat short of the best in the field.
(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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