Through consistent, successful touring and the occasional studio album, Phish’s status as Vermont’s legendary jam band kingpins remains unscathed. But this doesn’t mean the band spends its off-time resting on laurels. Far from it. Singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio, in particular, enjoys a healthy, multifaceted solo career, and bassist Mike Gordon keeps churning out delightfully weird releases both with his band as well a variety of collaborators.
The content of Gordon’s latest album shouldn’t surprise any fans of the bassist’s solo career or even those who’ve kept tabs on his contributions to Phish. OGOGO continues his trend of making flaky, off-kilter music that thrives on expert musicianship but still manages to retain plenty of hooks that work well within the pop music realm.
The one aspect of OGOGO that sets it apart — just a bit — from the rest of his discography is the heavy influx of synthesizers and programming. Gordon’s been down this road before; his previous solo album, 2014’s Overstep, dabbled in synths but also managed to stay relatively organic. OGOGO dives headfirst into an ocean of blips and patches that almost seem like an attempt to distance himself from the past and start over. But upon further examination, it’s clear that the songs (and their arrangements) work well with previous works and just manage to nudge the sound a bit further into the future.
OGOGO was recorded with Gordon’s touring band of guitarist (and co-writer) Scott Murawski, drummer John Kimock, keyboardist Robert Walter, and percussionist Craig Myers, with Grammy-winning engineer Shawn Everett on board for production duties. The album kicks off with the warm keyboard buzz of “Equilibrium”, and the addition of four-on-the-floor drumming almost makes the track sound like a new LCD Soundsystem single. “Left right / Fast slow / Out of balance,” Gordon sings in his trademark nasal delivery, while handclaps egg on the beat. It’s this kind of quasi-dancefloor vibe that may repel longtime fans, but anyone who knows Gordon’s music can tell you that his flair for unpredictable stylistic shifts and genre-dabbling is nothing new.
Tracks like “Victim” can appease both fans of synth-heavy pop and more traditional rock, as the song lays down an intoxicatingly funky rhythm while a distorted wah-wah guitar weaves its way through the catchy head-bobber of a single. “You never were the victim / I’m sure you know,” the chorus goes, underscored by spare piano chords. “Steps”, the album’s first single, is framed by an insistent, vaguely tropical beat and includes sunny sonic treats like elastic guitar leads and Gordon’s oddly charming falsetto in the bridge. The general sense you get from OGOGO is an artist who revels in occasionally jarring weirdness but still likes a good party atmosphere.
But OGOGO isn’t without the occasional darkness. “Crazy Sometimes” tempers its thorny funk beats with a robotic, somewhat forbidding synth-heavy chorus. “Pendulum” has the potential to be something of a loving tribute to keyboard-heavy ‘80s new wave, but its thick, overstuffed arrangement threatens to cause the song to topple under its own weight. “Whirlwind” is, on its surface, a fairly benign slice of lazy funk, but soon turns neurotic and maddening towards the end, as studio effects cause the song to disintegrate slowly.
Still, like most everything Gordon does, OGOGO is full of pleasant yet oddball gems. “Marissa” is a gentle love song that floats along a warm reggae beat (reminiscent of “Yarmouth Road” from Overstep). “Let’s Go” — a song intended for, but ultimately dropped from Big Boat, the latest Phish album — is a fun, mid-tempo party anthem, complete with a Weezer-like “whoa, oh, oh” chorus.
One of the album’s most winning moments is also its most sweet and unusual. “So Far Gone” is a bizarre, potent slice of muted psychedelia with bass, acoustic guitar and understated keyboards swirling around Gordon’s gentle vocals, giving off the impression of a folk ballad drifting off in outer space. Over the years, Gordon has certainly earned a reputation for being a songwriter and musician with an unusual arsenal, and when he drops gems like this into an ocean of rock and funk, the results can be breathtaking.
Phish fans looking for songs that serve as launching pads for 20-minute jam sessions will likely be disappointed by the quirky, more concise charms of Mike Gordon’s latest album. But those who’ve been following his career from the very beginning will likely breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing OGOGO, content in the knowledge that he’s just as weird and wonderful as ever.