Chances are, you already know if you’re going to like the debut solo CD by former Phish keyboardist Page McConnell. You’re either one of the legion of the Phish faithful, or a non-believer who runs screaming “Go away, hippie!”, like Eric Cartman, at the mere mention of the band’s name. This dichotomy is what all members of cult bands face, no matter how big the cult. And McConnell’s tuneful but unassuming self-titled disc is unlikely to change the opinion of the Phish phobic. And maybe it doesn’t have to. When you’ve earned a cult as rabid and large as Phish did, why not play to it, after all?
But before you click away from this review and start shouting Cartman-isms, let’s scroll back 20 years and recall why Phish’s upstream swim of a career trajectory altered the course of popular music. Back in the waning days of the Reagan era, most people’s favored popular music came from artists on MTV that seemed like genetically engineered experiments in commerciality. The club scene, on the other hand, was filled with brash post-punk bands playing to almost no one.
Phish transcended this musical Great Divide and helped to create the jam band scene. Like a lot of 1980s college kids, they sat around in their dorm rooms feeling disaffected and wondered why music didn’t sound as cool as it did when the Seeds scaled the charts. But unlike those ‘80s kids, they eschewed both punk and preppie trendiness, got off their collective asses and made music their own way, risking laughter and derision (both of which they no doubt got). Sure, the Grateful Dead’s unexpected surge of popularity in the late ‘80s helped their cause, but when has serendipity not been a factor in a success story?
That history is all implicit in McConnell’s CD. The songs may be slight, but the playing and the players sure aren’t. All of the other long-term players in Phish put in appearances, as does legendary session drummer Jim Keltner. Even when it’s uninspired, it sounds good. It’s also jazzier than you might expect. Phish wore its jazz influences on its sleeve, and McConnell made that influence even more apparent when he founded the trio Vida Blue in Phish’s waning days. With Page McConnell, jazz is again pushed into the forefront of the keyboardist-singer’s repertoire. But there are two types of jazz offered here. Some of the tracks are Lite Jazz, some are jam numbers and others edge towards a funky jazz-pop sound. As such, the album doesn’t really hang together.
McConnell, who wrote a handful of Phish tunes, writes in a melodic style similar to that of main Phish songwriter Trey Anastasio. He’s more mellow, though, which can work when the writing is surprising and clever (think Ben Folds), but the writing here usually isn’t. Since McConnell got his innovating out of the way already, it’s understandable that he wants to kick back and make some mellow music with his friends. The opener, “Beauty of a Broken Heart”, has a gorgeous, swirling melody, and some funky rhythms courtesy of both Keltner and Phish founder Jon Fishman. Yet the overall effect is less than that of the individual parts, because of the polite playing (everyone seems to be very tasteful here) and the lyrics, which are awkward and mawkish.
The 10-minute “Heavy Rotation”, which appears to be a recollection of McConnell’s musical memories, starts out treading the same musical terrain. And then about four minutes in, McConnell starts playing some forearm-busting jazzy piano leads and the whole track comes to life. All of a sudden Keltner, guitarist Adam Zinman and former Phish bassist Mike Gordon are all chiming in with inspired call-and-response phrases. It’s like they suddenly realized they should be jamming with Dave Brubeck instead of playing a session date with Michael Franks. And McConnell can really wail on keyboards. He gets to spend eight minutes doing just that on the instrumental “Back in the Basement”, which showcases Gordon and Anastasio and works up a good head of energy. Another standout track is the jazzy ballad “Complex Wind”, which features a probing, Jethro Tull-style melody and some interesting synthesized flute. The elegiac “Rules I Don’t Know” seems to tell the story of Phish’s fade-out and eventual breakup, but you don’t need to know that to enjoy its wistful, loping melody.
Had the album concentrated more on jazz and eschewed jazz-pop concoctions it might have wound up more interesting. But the funky beats on “Close to Home” and “Runaway Bride” sound forced, as do their lyrical themes. The first tune’s take on American political corruption is too wide-angled to have much emotional impact. On the latter tune, McConnell paints a sympathetic portrait of mainstay Jennifer Wilbanks, but the paternalistic conceit of the lyric and its unfortunate reference to her “satellite eyes” undoes his premise.
McConnell’s wispy, somewhat nasal vocals are appealing, mainly because they run counter to today’s trend of over-singing. Anyone raised on ‘60s or ‘70s music, though, will probably be reminded of the sappy-but-sweet Joey Levine, who fronted bubble gum bands like Ohio Express and Reunion. His self-production job is sterling, if a bit too smooth and sterile. More acoustic ambiance and sweat would have made for a more exciting CD. But McConnell definitely sweated enough at all those Phish gigs. So maybe it is time for him to, like, totally mellow out, man. This CD will have Phish phanatics kicking back with him. Everyone else is advised to consult their Inner Cartman as to how they feel about it.