First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2007, Volume 14, #4
Written by John Metzger
Is there life after Phish? Page McConnell certainly thinks so, and although he undeniably played an integral role with the band, he frequently was so overshadowed by front man Trey Anastasio that there likely is some need to prove his merits outside the outfit — both to his new label and to himself. By relying on his old pals for assistance — Anastasio, Mike Gordon, and Jon Fishman take turns in augmenting a core unit that features guitarist Adam Zimmon, drummer Jim Keltner, and multi-instrumentalist Jared Slomoff — McConnell furnishes a frame of reference for his music, though this approach also keeps him firmly tethered to his past. The result is that none of the tracks on the eponymous effort truly move beyond his work with Phish. Nevertheless, the material does yield plenty of opportunities for him to comment upon the group’s dissolution, and the role reversal, which he initiates by placing his inspired and imaginative piano flights into the places where guitar solos previously would have been, allows him to branch out and demonstrate precisely what he can do.
Two songs in particular — Heavy Rotation and Back in the Basement — are all-out vehicles for improvisation, and both tracks rank among the finest studio jams that the members of Phish, alone or together, ever have managed to concoct. As if to answer McConnell’s depiction of his hectic life on the road with Phish, the former tune explodes in an exhilarating burst of jazz-tinged chord progressions that dance, sometimes with manic intensity, over the funky rhythms and rippling bass lines laid down by Zimmon, Keltner, and Gordon. In contrast, the latter cut is an instrumental that begins as a deep, blues ’n‘ soul groove in the spirit of Derek and the Dominoes. As the quintet of Gordon, Keltner, Anastasio, and Zimmon builds momentum, McConnell’s keyboard accompaniment splatters off Anastasio’s churning guitar patterns, creating an aura of violently turbulent, fractured discordance.
Lyrically, McConnell uses the self-titled set as way of defining his innermost journey as he came to accept Phish’s demise and eventually emerge as a solo artist. Four of the tracks (Beauty of a Broken Heart, Heavy Rotation, Maid Marion, and Rules I Don’t Know) directly reflect upon his experiences with his former outfit, while the rest of the material revolves around the notion that conflict can spur positive change, thus binding his political tirade (Close to Home) and his sympathetic depiction of Jennifer Wilbanks’ escapades (The Runaway Bride) to the rest of the endeavor. Containing moments of frustration, anxiety, and disappointment, which he tempers with a healthy measure of guarded optimism, the thematically linked song cycle reveals his emotional trajectory in a refreshingly honest fashion.
Now that McConnell has put Phish to rest, however, one has to hope his future work will find him exploring fresh terrain. In the meantime, though, his eponymous effort is everything it needs to be. It is confident, passionate, and engaging, and while its architecture won’t alienate his fans, it does provide a sturdy foundation upon which he surely can build. ½
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box