(Sony Legacy, CD)
I don't like Phish. There, I said it. That statement is close to sacrilege in these parts, but I really feel much better having written it. I know, I know: It's my job to be objective, regardless of personal taste. But living in Burlington makes objectivity nearly impossible when it comes to the Phab Four. From the headiest hippie to the surliest punk, everyone has an opinion concerning our local rock icons.
So I really can't help but inject a certain personal bias when sizing up a new project from an ex-member of Phish. It's like trying to evaluate post-Star Wars Mark Hamill without thinking about Luke Skywalker. It simply can't be done.
On his self-titled debut solo album, Page McConnell tries - with a little help from his phriends, including guest turns from Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon - to emerge from the shadow of the Dark Side, and he often succeeds. Although there's no shortage of wiggle-inducing jamminess, the record is defined by a fairly conventional pop structure. And yes, I'm shocked.
Eschewing the musical masturbation favored by many would-be heirs to the jam throne, McConnell has crafted an album that wouldn't seem out of place next to Ben Folds or early Elton John on your CD shelf. Not unlike Folds, McConnell possesses a pleasing voice and displays a gift for cleverly succinct melodies. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the same knack for cleverly succinct lyrics.
Throughout the disc, McConnell explores intimate personal ground - a divorce, life after Phish. He even takes on some hefty political matters. Yet his ambitions outweigh his literary abilities, which results in a good deal of rambling.
"Windmills, alpaca, thermal extractor / Who's keeping track of the matter of factor? / He started to speak in the middle of last week / Talking for days lending voice to the breeze," McConnell sings on "Complex Wind." See what I mean?
Lyrical stumbles aside, Page McConnell is impressively adventurous and a surprising departure from the Phish/Vida Blue canon. It's no secret that the keyboardist is a virtuosic musician, and he gives himself ample opportunities to shine. But he also shows commendable restraint by allowing his songs, and not just his solos, to take center stage.
McConnell will kick out the jams (apologies to The MC5) and kick off his summer tour at the Higher Ground Ballroom on Wednesday, May 30. May the phorce be with him.