Mike Gordon
The Green Sparrow


An excellent bass player, a versatile multi-instrumentalist (various guitars, keyboards, and an agile, highly-skilled, bluegrass-flavoured banjo), singer, writer of lyrics loaded with surreal humour, also a gifted and much-appreciated filmmaker, Mike Gordon was for me the most difficult-to-pin-down member of the highly celebrated (and by now destined to stay dormant forever, or so it seems) US quartet named Phish.

And it's true that immediately after the split, Trey Anastasio - the guitarist and singer who had written about 90% of the group's repertoire - started a solo career that in many ways looked like a continuation of said group, though with different coordinates, whereas the other three former members didn't appear as determined (at least, when it comes to the long-term implications). (Beyond his songs, his stage presence, his stamina, and his appearing quite at ease occupying the edge of the stage, it was the sense of direction he provided, his making it appear as the group's voyage was in a way necessary, that had been the most valuable aspect of Anastasio's contribution.)

That said, what Gordon has released until now has been quite good, though not in great abundance when it comes to numbers. I have to admit I still listen with great pleasure to Clone (2002) and Sixty Six Steps (2005), the two albums he recorded with guitarist and singer Leo Kottke. (Two albums, those, that in my opinion were greatly undervalued, for whatever reason, with not many bothering to even listen.) And I still like listening to Inside In (2003): a bizarre combination of trombones, pedal steel, percussion, banjo, and bass, it's the kind of mix that on first listening may sound like something almost "random", but that after a few careful listening sessions - or, to those who have a natural propensity for the bizarre, immediately - reveals itself to be a quite deliberate effort.

The Green Sparrow appears to be a more "classic-sounding" work - we could maybe call it "traditional" - that can be easily filed under what can still be called "American music". Ten songs, for a CD that's of LP-length.

This is a work that's quite easy to underestimate (it happened to me, on first listening), since this time Gordon's goal appears to be a kind of "hidden complexity", placed inside an accessible framework. And the lyrics, while retaining that taste for the surreal and the dream-like that's so peculiar to him, appear as having a sense of narrative that - compared to Inside In - is, if not quite traditional, at least somewhat accessible/understandable.

Recorded in Gordon's studio, Cactus Unlimited, in a lengthy period during 2007-2008, and then in New York, at the classic Electric Lady Studios, produced by Gordon himself and by trusted men John Siket and Jared Slomoff, mixed by John Siket, The Green Sparrow puts together a lot of different instruments and approaches, with very fine instrumental moments and a few "special guests" that make good musical sense. To me, here Gordon sounds a much better vocalist and guitar player than before, and every track sounds as being the fruit of great craft. Nice recorded sound, excellent bass work.

Another Door is a classic opener, with the excellent Doug Belote on drums (performing well all over the album), with Gordon on bass, guitars, and keyboards. A nice drum intro, the song has an "almost funky-calypso" air, a linear vocal part, simple bass lines, an "organ". Nice instrumental passage with an ascending bass line, then a quirky-sounding intermezzo bizzarro, starting at about 1' 50", with guitars and "mysterious sounds" (almost like a Clavinet through a wha-wha pedal).

Voices has again the Gordon and Belote team, Page McConnell (of Phish fame) is on organ, also various voices. Nice transition of the "tiny-sounding" intro guitar and the main piece. As it's also true for many tracks on this album, here the bass part is simple, but the accents fall in quite different places than those of the vocal part. An "almost-calypso" mood, filtered voices (almost as through a vocoder), with a very "dream-like" effect in the song's chorus. Piano, a guitar solo, and a nice bridge featuring McConnell's organ.

Dig Further Down resembles Phish - a lot. Electric guitar courtesy of Trey Anastasio (with a couple of pick hits ą la Jeff Beck at 2' 42" - 2' 43"), excellent drum groove by Joe Russo (of the duo with Marco Benevento), organ (is it a real Hammond? the bass sounds solid, the Leslie is quite realistic) played by Chuck Leavell, who has a fine solo.

Pretend has a fine drum groove by Russ Lawton. The melody is sung with finesse by Gordon, a few acoustic guitars, a nice bridge. The bass part has a nice counterpoint role that reminded me a lot of Phil Lesh, while the slide guitars in the solo (also played by Gordon) reminded me a bit of Jerry Garcia's pedal steel.

Traveled Too Far is the only track that didn't impress me much, mainly because it sounds too much like Grateful Dead (this is obviously intentional, starting with the fact that here Bill Kreutzmann sits on drums). The piano is mainly used as a rhythm instrument, at times almost honk-tonk (it's Chuck Leavell again), there's a nice organ (it's McConnell again), a classic bridge, and a guitar solo by Trey Anastasio that sounds as he's almost quoting Jerry Garcia's licks.

Andelmans' Yard is the longest track here (6'), maybe also the most beautiful. Here Gordon plays everything himself. There's a calypso-sounding rhythm, played by "automation", acoustic guitars, melody vocals, clean sounds. The bass enters con brio at 2' 20", and starting at 2' 50" there's a long, nice instrumental interlude.

Radar Blip opens with a funky-sounding bass groove (it's my favourite moment on the album), dry-sounding drums by Belote, organ, vocals, and winds (trumpet, trombone, baritone sax, flute), the whole producing a feel that sounds like a jazzed-up R&B. It's a fine arrangement, and a nice track, a bit like Steely Dan.

Morphing Again has Joe Russo on drums, a nice, light, mood, a fine bass, and an airy-sounding chorus. It doesn't jump at you, but it's good.

Jaded almost surprised me, with its almost-funky rhythm section, that "sharp" guitar, percussion, almost-rapping vocals, plus organ (performing a nice solo with a touch of "percussion") and vocals both by Ivan Neville - and voilą, it's almost like a New Orleans groove!

Sound is a nice close: a lazy calypso, a fine rhythm section, very good piano by Gordon, acoustic guitars, and a touch of organ (it's Chuck Leavell again, I was glad listening to him in such a fine form).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2008

CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 26, 2008