Mike Gordon is the bassist in the jam band Phish and now bestows to us his sixth solo album, Flying Games. As we know, Phish does U.S. tours pretty much every summer. In addition, Gordon has released three albums with acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke. So nobody’s wondering what he’s been up to lately, in other words.
Refreshingly, too, Flying Games is really nothing like a Phish record, save for the sporadic moments wherein I feel like I’m listening to his band, since he carries certain vocal parts in their songs, sounding almost exactly like their lead singer, Trey Anastacio. The rubric here, as it were, is probably ’70s funk, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising given that Gordon is traditionally a bassist.
And I have to say, opener “Tilting” almost threw me for a loop. It was absolute shock to here programmed drums and something approximating pop out of someone whose band is beholden to many, many songs that are over 10 minutes, and, if they do veer toward pop, tend to prefer a stripped-down, folky aesthetic (I’m thinking of “Prince Caspian,” in particular). And sure, part of me hated it. I mean, I wanted something trippy. I wanted something psychedelic. On “Tilting,” too, the melody and chord progression are downright weird, like Maroon 5 after a month-long regimen of Stravinsky and Varese. Combined with the element of Gordon’s voice always sounding really white and awkward, “Tilting” surely threatened to topple completely, under its own weight. Ultimately, though, I found it a success, in large part for what I perceive to be its ease in playing in a crowd (pub, party, concert, etc.) and to still exist on its own artistic plane, theoretically.
I mean, sh**. Flying Games is a pop album. Let’s be honest. It can’t be “rock” because the drums aren’t live and there’s not really a strong guitar presence, almost like a vindictive ploy against the virtuosic noodling of longtime bandmate Trey Anastacio. But if Flying Games does play as an act in competition, it’s undeniably swathed in enough purposefulness, tension and moxie to make you give it the benefit of the doubt.
“Pure Energy” plays as somewhat of a centerpiece with rich, throaty guitar and bass sound ushering an eventual mix which, again, embeds itself firmly within the realm of pop, with programmed drums and an extensive set of synth tracking. This track is also coy in that the title comes to mind a staunch, oblong and almost hippie-ish dedication to purity, which would theoretically equate to simplicity, yet the song itself is so elaborate and disciplined. By “elaborate” I denote a multiplicity of parts, or tracks, each of which furnishes fairly complex, autonomous riffing, and by “disciplined” I mean that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and the whole escapade moves along systematically like a spherical ball rolling, remaining new and fresh. There’s clear potential for Remain in Light comparisons here, then, without question, with the live drums converted to beats, ultimately in keeping with the general trend in pop music of the last 15 years. And whadya know — Gordon is playing Bell’s Brewery this summer. Charlatans, all of ya.
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