First and foremost, Talkhouse Contributing Writer Liam Wilson is a good vibe technician. He’s known to moonlight as an avid psychonaut and enjoys occasional visits with his worldly possessions in Philadelphia. He spends most of his time wandering Earth in an endless pursuit of a clearer understanding of all things bass-frequency related with his band the Dillinger Escape Plan. Follow him on: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Many moons ago, after I first picked up a bass, but likely before I experimented with any gateway drugs, my older sister was passing through a self-realizing phase of the tie-dye sort and was really into the music of bands like Phish. With increasing persistence she prescribed her copy of A Picture of Nectar (taboot!) and suggested that I specifically tune in to Mike Gordon’s Swiss Army knife-style of bass playing. And at an early age, with a single dose, I was cured of all stereotypical judgments about Phish and the music they make.
I went on to have transformative moments while seeing them live a few times as a teenager back in the ’90s; in 2009 after a long time of not paying attention to them, I experienced kismet after sneaking side-stage at Bonnaroo when our bands shared the bill, and I’ve witnessed their onstage supremacy and fan-centric stunts as recently as last summer. I’ve heard that Phish has a 500-song catalogue of originals and covers, 100 of which they’re ready to perform endless mutations of at any given time. If that’s even remotely true, then this Mike Gordon dude has composed a remarkable number of songs, decomposed them hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times, and performed them alongside an incredible array of noteworthy musicians for over 30 years. No doubt, this guy has probably forgotten more than I’ll ever know about songs and songwriting, which made me at least a little bit curious about what a Mike Gordon solo record might sound like.
Upon realizing this isn’t his first solo album, I decided it was only fair that I investigate the music and its maker in the proper context by giving myself a crash course in some of his earlier material. From what I’ve absorbed, Overstep isn’t as syncopated as 2010’s Moss; doesn’t seem as probing as 2008’s The Green Sparrow, or as far out as 2003’s Inside In. Instead, on Gordon’s fourth solo album, we find him flexing his singer-songwriter muscles. Presumably focused on keeping it stupidly simple, the results are infectiously hummable. The similarly straightforward personnel — long-time collaborator, album co-author, and guitarist-vocalist Scott Murawski; session drummer Matt Chamberlain (Fiona Apple, Pearl Jam); and producer Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies) — get great mileage out of these more conventional song structures.
The opener “Ether” comes up somewhat short of my optimistic expectations. The production, source tones and everyone’s performances are all top-notch, but with lines like “Order up an earthquake with a side of glacier” it introduces the oft-nonsensical, out-of-body lyrical motifs that appear throughout the album. I guess I was imagining a bolder musical announcement via a homespun mix of hippie spirit and conservatory-level execution from players of this pedigree. I also couldn’t help but notice he’s already used the prosaic expression “I’m floating in the ether” on the Moss song “Horizon Line.” Is he nodding back at himself? Or is he just recycling his own banal ideas?
Although there aren’t any extended extra-terrestrial explorations to slake one’s thirst with, I found most songs to already have an intrinsically free-flowing, almost improvised sensibility without any aimless digressions. The saucy and upbeat “Jumping” briefly showcases some of the album’s more spontaneous-sounding moments, but it quickly cooks down to short-lived studio jamming, boxed and anti-climactic.
Pavlovian Phans will likely welcome cleanup hitters “Yarmouth Road” and “Say Something” in part because of their premieres on this past year’s Phish tours, and rightfully so, because this is where the album stores its gold. “Yarmouth Road” strikes a sophisticated balance; the more down-to-earth clarity to the lyrics sets a higher standard that the rest of the album has a hard time meeting. However, any ground it gains is quickly lost with the almost punnily sequenced skippers “Face” and “Paint.” The murky “Different World” gives the latter half of the record added traction with its deconstructed demo-like assembly, whereas the introspective “Peel,” although well decorated with some unexpected ribbons of accordion, wanders too far into Radiohead-cliché territory to let it go unchecked. For me, this is the only track that exhibits any suspiciously heavy-handed marks left by producer Kolderie, who otherwise slam-dunked his responsibilities. When Murawski handles the lead vocals on “Peel” (and two others), leaving Gordon to provide the supportive vocal harmonies, I realize that I enjoy their voices better with Gordon singing backup, or at least accompanying himself when he is leading. His phrasing is quite clever, but his vocal quirkiness sits better when it’s deeper in the mix, and not naked in the foreground.
Although refreshingly more-mature closers “Long Black Line” and “Surface” explore more universal and yet possibly semi-autobiographical themes, and showcase some fun wordplay, the lion’s share of these tracks tend toward voyeuristic fantasy and anesthetized Mad Hatter poetry that eclipse the sophistication of the songwriting.
A measured amount of ambiguity and absurdity is OK to set the mood or create suspense, but the relentless silliness of the majority of the album makes for a slippery experience. Already disarmed by its sense of humor, when I lean in for a closer look, the music reveals little beyond a squirting flower on its lapel.
Overstep is by no means groundbreaking, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. Like so many records, there’s some killer and some filler here. Most of album plays it a little too safe and boasts few surprises; that’s not to suggest, however, that there aren’t some well-fed earworms twitching in this musical compost.
Here’s the thing with me: Even if my first impressions of a particular piece of music are defensive or hypercritical, something akin to Stockholm Syndrome usually sets in and I eventually begin to acquiesce to whatever it is I’m repeatedly listening to. By the time I arrive at this all-too-familiar point in my process, I can’t tell if I’m actually enjoying albums like Overstep or just simply enduring them under light duress. But the reality is that these songs don’t have to satisfy me. The only duty they legitimately have are to serve as mantras, muses and mirrors to their creators; the rest of us can only hope to attain that sort of connection with any of the music we enjoy listening to.