When you scan the song lengths on the back of Page McConnell’s solo debut, you will find some healthy numbers: 10:39, 8:13, 6:05, and three others longer than five minutes. And if you glance at the CD booklet there will be some familiar names: Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, Trey Anastasio. Yes, there will be some jams.
Page McConnell was the most obscure member of Phish, the no-longer-operating post-Dead jam band. Phish’s main songwriter, usual lead singer, and solo-space-hogging guitarist was Anastasio. And Gordon and Fishman (bass and drums) were always the point of the band—the groove machine that gave them a weird sort of Ben & Jerry’s funk. McConnell, like all keyboard guys and harmony vocalists, was the expendable member of the stoned quartet.
All of which raises the question—might his post-Phish music actually sound different? What was he holding in over all the years, secondary to Trey and yearning to be set free?
If Page McConnell is the man’s reply, then the answers are: NO, and THE USUAL.
The nine songs on this disc all have the same cluttered sound—as if a bunch of Phish tunes had been gussied up with a whole bunch of extraneous sounds (usually produced by one of the leader’s cool toys)—synth swishes, Rhodes licks, Steinway poundings, toy piano tinkles. Beyond that, the songs have a melodic sameness too, and that Xeroxed feel is accentuated painfully by McConnell’s EveryGuy voice. It’s not that he can’t sing, but rather that he sings with a thin strain of a voice. And—also as in Phish—the lyrics seem either unpoetic (“You listen to everyone but me”) or college-prank-ish (“I watched as the flamethrower turned to my rainbow to torch up my quaint little shack”).
And of course, it’s all fleshed out with a goodly number of instrumental jams during which the band plays collectively. “Beauty of a Broken Heart” ends with a nearly seven-minute vamp during which McConnell bangs out some gospel-rock on acoustic piano while accompanied by wah-wah guitar and Dead-ish duel drummers in Fishman and the legendary Jim Keltner. But darn it if the synth bass (courtesy of McConnell) doesn’t sound Gordon-esque and if the enterprise doesn’t slowly wind down to silence as if the whole band were bouncing on trampolines in an arena back in the late ‘90s. “Back in the Basement” is the feature for Anastasio and Gordon (but no Fishman), and it is just what you would expect: ponderously low on actual melody but high on the gradual building of jammy tension. Medium-loud-soft . . . back to “melody”—got it.
Somewhat original on Page McConnell is the theme of broken relationships. The pianist (who wrote all the tunes) is plainly speaking either about his busted-up band or his busted-up marriage throughout. You get the feeling here, even more than on the Phish records, that the band would be just as happy to abandon the vocals if they thought the market would allow it. Even on a relatively un-Phishy track like “The Rules I Don’t Know”, which sways with a country feel, the vocals are delivered with an almost apologetic tone of voice. There is some sweet harmony singing, and the melody (the most distinctive on the album) is placed in a rich setting that brings to mind The Band as much as, say, Bruce Hornsby. But McConnell’s singing—acceptably second-fiddle-ish with Phish—is bland and unattractively nasal here. “Rules” cries out for a Garth Hudson or Levon Helm vocal. But as delivered by the composer, the tune remains an incomplete sketch.
Phish, in the end, was more than the sum of its parts. Trey Anastasio’s solo work has had the guts to be fairly different from his work with the band. Some of it has been bigger than Phish, with extensively arranged horn sections or world music grooves. Shine, his first genuine post-Phish disc, was more stripped down—just rock songs without the self-indulgence. Gordon and Fishman, without the burden of being “leaders”, have been free to do interesting small projects. None of it, though, captured the glint of excitement that the original band offered.
McConnell seems caught by the expectation that he will make a genuine solo record. When he writes a Phish-type song (“Everyone But Me”), you miss the goofy appeal of the whole band (particularly Trey’s guitar and—we now have to acknowledge—confident singing). When he delivers something different—such as the jazzy/soundtrack-ish “Complex Wind” with its sequenced electronic percussion, Sam Spade-ish flute/vibraharp lines, and hip chords—it seems pretty much out of left field. As oddball as the Phish body of work was, fans could go back to it over and over again. Page McConnell is going to sit on the shelf of even the most ardent Phish-heads.
But maybe I’m being tough on Page McConnell because my hopes were high. Trey Anastasio always seemed sort of like the bully or egotist of Phish—the spotlight hogger whose amplifier was louder than everyone else’s. It was his drug problems that ruined concerts or his self-indulgence that meant the band had gone out of balance. But Page McConnell, self-effacing and more anonymous nestled in his bank of keyboards? Maybe he was the real genius of the band.
And, alas, maybe not.