[13 January 2011]
As the bassist for Phish, Mike Gordon can always be counted on for musically appropriate playing. Whether its nimble walking bass on a bluegrass cover, popping uptempo funk, or complex compositions where his bass darts in and out among Trey Anastasio’s guitar lines and Page McConnell’s piano, Gordon is highly skilled and very savvy. As a songwriter, his work in the band usually serves as a change of pace from Anastasio’s material. Over the years, he’s written in a lot of genres, from straight-ahead rock to catchy pop to classic country. But his lyrics have always had a certain whimsical peculiarity to them. So it’s no surprise that Moss, his third solo album, doesn’t stray too far from what he’s done in the past.
The album opens with “Can’t Stand Still”, an upbeat pop song driven by skittering drums, active bass, and bright guitar. Gordon sings about, well, it’s unclear exactly what he’s singing about, but the catchy chorus “I can’t stand still / When the drums are marching by / And the sun’s so bright” makes it a great opener. Gordon’s bass dominates the next track, the mid-tempo “Horizon Line”, with a fat, funky figure. Page McConnell’s organ playing adds body to the song, as it does on nearly every track on the album. “Horizon Line” is not as immediately catchy as “Can’t Stand Still”, but the funked-up feel makes it work. Third song “Fire from a Stick” may be the album’s biggest earworm, but because it’s one of those catchy-but-annoying tunes that just won’t go away. The polyrhythmic drums and funky bass don’t work nearly as well here, which is a shame because Gordon’s lyrics actually make a bit of sense on this one. His subject is people who seem to make great art without even trying, and the frustration of regular people who put so much effort into it and don’t even get close.
The rest of Moss goes on with slight variations on Gordon’s formula. There’s generally a funky bassline, some locked-in drumming, tasteful guitar, and organ accompaniments, and Gordon singing weird lyrics to solid melodies. “Babylon Baby” has creative percussion and some of Gordon’s best bass playing going for it. “Flashback” has the kind of low-down funky groove that Phish often attempts and sounds faintly ridiculous doing, and Gordon fares no better on his own. The horn chart on the song is particularly egregious, screechy and poorly arranged. Much better is “The Void”, which makes good use of a celeste and appropriately swirling atmosphere. “Spiral” works for similar reasons, with a bassline that seems to be circling around and around. Both songs bear a strong (but not inescapable) resemblance to Gordon’s Phish song “Round Room”, one of his best compositions. The album-closing “Idea” employs the horn section to much better effect, as Gordon finishes the record out with another pop-oriented song.
Moss is the sort of good album that isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion about the artist. It’s nice to hear more from Mike Gordon than just the single song he’s usually allotted on Phish’s studio albums. But Phish has released 11 studio albums over the years, in addition to dozens of non-studio original songs that are live staples, meaning that fans know pretty much what to expect from Gordon, even if they haven’t heard his previous solo albums. If you like what he does, you’ll enjoy this. The most positive thing I can say about Moss to people who are wary of jam-bands is that Gordon keeps things short. No track here goes over the six-minute mark, so the focus is on the basic tracks, not virtuoso solos or extended experiments. It’s nice to have that clarity of arranging and songwriting in the studio, even if Gordon’s primary band doesn’t always subscribe to the philosophy.