Most know Mike Gordon as the bass player for Phish, the overlord of all "jambands." That’s how I first came to know of Gordo as well: as the weirdo unassumingly dropping some of the greatest, deep-jamming bass lines you've ever heard. But over the last decade I've been in a position to see him as someone else – a music fan. Having lived in Boston and New York over that time, I’ve been privy to a little bit of Gordon's tastes, finding myself inadvertently joining him as an audience member at a range of shows and seeing (or hearing of) him sitting in with a wide variety of performers. Bluegrass, funk, rock, electronic, jazz and plenty of Col. Bruce Hampton, Mike takes it all in and lends his talents accordingly. So it's no surprise that his first solo album, Inside In (on ropeadope Records), reflects these broad tastes with a distinctive Zambian twist. What is surprising is just how he incorporates it all together and creates one coherent flow of music. He doesn’t flip back and forth between genres, nor does he allow himself to get caught in the strong currents of noodling and jamming flowing all around him. Instead he almost creates his own genre of music and within it offers a refreshing batch of original songs.
He's started with a base of country and bluegrass and stirred in just a touch of rock and funky bass lines and nice big chunks of quirky, poetic lyrics and ran the Cuisinart on high, whipping up a nice salsa called "Gordo." The music plays like a post-modern, cosmic country/western over 15 tracks (clocking in at just over 50 minutes) that would seem awkward on a Phish setlist but stand comfortably on their own on this treat of an album.
Mike has really outdone himself on Inside In, both as a performer, a songwriter, a producer, and a bandleader. There are two impressive lists in the liner notes to the album. The first is the list of performers enlisted to play, a sliver of bluegrass' finest and historical giants: cameos from Buddy Cage and Vassar Clements; and significant contributions from Bela Fleck with a couple of his Flecktones – Future Man and Jeff Coffin; with some Vermont-flavored talent thrown in including Jon Fishman, Gabe Jarrett and Russ Lawton alternating on drum duties and Gordon Stone and James Harvey, amongst others; and of course, the obligatory Bruce Hampton sprinkling on a couple tracks. It is really instructive (or is it "outstructive?") to map each set of performers to each track and see who's doing what along the way. In doing such mapping, one finds that the second impressive list is really the heart of this album – the list of what instruments Mike plays in addition to and in spite of the bands he's already assembled. I might as well quote directly from the notes: "Mike Gordon – All guitars and basses, vocals throughout – plus other stuff like Wurlitzer, Moog, accordion, blue cotton, djembe, washing machine, dryer, shaker, clav, vibe tube, cow tilt, tambourine, pedal steel, bass harmonica." Yeah, there’s some obligatory Mike weirdness thrown in there (what the hell is a "cow tilt"??) and some references to his movie Outside Out, from which this album draws its inspiration. For the most part, though, that list belies some true talent on display. In fact, one of the more striking things when listening to this album by one of the preeminent rock bassists out there is that there is little emphasis on the bass itself. Perhaps the only example of Mike Gordon as 1/4 of Phish is during the toe-tapping, near-funk of "Soul Food Man." Along the way he does some of just about everything except sit down at the drum kit. This is an album by Mike Gordon, songwriter and musician, standing on its own legs free from the jamband pigeonhole. And in my opinion, it delivers completely.
In many ways, this is a companion to Mike's film Outside Out, the story of a guy unlearning guitar from Bruce Hampton. Taking that movie as a starting point, the music really searches its own space – to "get out." While a few of the songs from the album are featured in the movie and most of the others loosely describe characters or plot points from the movie, this is not a soundtrack at all. You don’t need to watch the movie to enjoy this music.
The prominent sound over the course of the album (as in the movie) is that graceful, otherworldly twang of the pedal steel guitar. Stone (Gordon Stone Band) appears on more than half the tracks and Cage (of New Riders of the Purple Sage) adds double steel duty on the reprise of "Take Me Out," not to mention whatever tracks Mike himself sits down at the steel. "Take Me Out" sets the tone of Inside In both literally, appearing as both the first and last tracks, and figuratively, with the second part twisting Mike's distinctive baritone around a smooth mixture of pedal steel, fiddle and banjo all bouncing on a simple, choppy rhythm section. From there, the album splits two ways. Songs like "The Teacher" feature lyric-driven storytelling of the slightly absurd that you might expect if you’ve taken even a cursory glance at Gordon's writing or have seen the movie. Others are sumptuous instrumental passages bridging the gaps in between like "Bone Delay" – a perfect balance of funky drumming from Lawton and a sparse and spacey mix of banjo, steel, clarinet, trombone and trumpet (as well as some drumitar and something called "guitar wumps" from the Colonel).
Photo by Robert Down
While not all the songs work perfectly – "Outside Out" is a rather banal layering of vocals that has yet to grow on me and "Admoop" is a short and slightly irritating experiment with effects – the album manages to stay the course from beginning to end. The revelation is Mike Gordon as a complete package completely separate from the role he plays on TV... a coming "out" party, if you will. Each song is simplistic yet textured, a true alloy and reinvention of Mike's influences. He has directed his talent into a tight, flowing unit over odd-tempos and tasteful melodies. And his playing, whether a plunking country-western bassline or a lightly strummed acoustic guitar or anything else he does on this album, is superb. Finally, he has put the album together with a sound that complements each piece, mixing the elements and additional effects in with his own multiple contributions nicely. From "Exit Wound," which is essentially a solo performance by Gordon on a moving, quintessential "broken heart" country song that has Mike crooning over his own bass and pedal steel, to the stand-out performances from Fleck and Stone on songs like "Bone Delay" and "Steel Bones," Inside In is ultimately listenable, truly NOT Phish-like, and yet completely Mike Gordon.
Stein Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).
JamBase | New York
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